• Opening the Floodgates for Runaway Jury Verdicts? Florida Supreme Court Declares Caps on Noneconomic Damages Unconstitutional in Medical Malpractice Wrongful Death Litigation
  • May 29, 2014 | Author: Chanel A. Mosley
  • Law Firm: Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, P.C. - Orlando Office
  • Key Points:

    • Statutory caps that limit a claimant’s ability to recover noneconomic damages in medical negligence claims involving wrongful death are unconstitutional.

    • The possibility remains that such caps in personal injury suits that do not involve the death of a patient will be stricken as well.

    On March 13, 2014, the Florida Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the caps on damages applicable to wrongful death claims in a medical malpractice cause of action. Estate of McCall v. United States, 2014 Fla. LEXIS 933 (Mar. 13, 2014). In a 5-2 ruling, Justice R. Fred Lewis wrote the opinion which concluded that the damages caps constituted a violation of the state of Florida’s equal protection clause.

    This is a monumental decision with a significant impact on the medical malpractice arena. The caps, which were implemented in 2003 as part of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s overhaul of medical malpractice law, imposed a $500,000 limit per claimant on noneconomic damages in suits involving personal injury or wrongful death arising from the medical negligence of health care providers, but in no case could noneconomic damages recoverable exceed $1 million, regardless of the number of claimants. § 766.118, Fla. Stat. Noneconomic damages include pain and suffering, inconvenience, physical impairment, mental anguish, loss of capacity for the enjoyment of life and other nonfinancial losses. § 766.202(8), Fla. Stat.

    In enacting the statutory damages caps, the Florida legislature relied on findings which determined that medical malpractice liability insurance premiums had increased dramatically, resulting in increased medical care costs and unavailability of malpractice insurance for physicians. See § 766.201, Fla. Stat. These increases were felt to be due, in primary part, to a substantial increase in loss payments paid to claimants in medical negligence litigation.

    The Florida Supreme Court’s decision comes in response to several questions certified by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Estate of McCall v. United States, 642 F.3d 944 (11th Cir. 2011). McCall was a tragic case involving two plaintiffs who were co-personal representatives of the estate of Michelle McCall. The plaintiffs brought a claim for medical malpractice arising out of Ms. McCall’s death following the delivery of her infant son by United States Air Force health care providers. Following a bench trial, the plaintiffs were awarded noneconomic damages totaling $2 million, which included an award of $500,000 for Ms. McCall’s son and $750,000 for each of her parents. Estate of McCall v. U.S., 663 F. Supp. 2d 1276, 1306 (M.D. Fla. 2009). The District Court applied the limitations provisions of § 766.118(2), Fla. Stat. to the award and reduced the plaintiffs’ recovery of noneconomic damages to $1 million as there were multiple claimants. On appeal to the Eleventh Circuit, the appellate court held that the District Court properly limited the plaintiffs’ damages to $1 million, relying heavily on the legislative history behind the limitations statute. Estate of McCall, 642 F. 3d at 951-52.

    Following its decision, the Eleventh Circuit certified four questions to the Florida Supreme Court, all dealing with the constitutionality of the noneconomic damages caps. The Florida Supreme Court dealt only with the first question, concluding that the statutory cap on noneconomic damages in wrongful death actions:

    ...fails because it imposes unfair and illogical burdens on injured patients when an act of medical negligence gives rise to multiple claimants. In such circumstances, medical malpractice claimants do not receive the same rights to full compensation because of arbitrarily diminished compensation for legally cognizable claims.

    Estate of McCall, 2014 Fla. LEXIS 933 at p. 9-10. The Court further held that the statutory cap lacked a rational relationship to its stated purpose—the “medical malpractice insurance crisis” which the caps were enacted to address. Specifically, upon further legal analysis, the Court opined that the conclusions reached by the Florida legislature as to the existence of such an insurance crisis were not supported by the data and were, in fact, undermined by other government reports. These government reports demonstrated that the number of practicing physicians in Florida had increased, that jury trial verdicts in medical malpractice cases constituted only a small portion of medical malpractice payments, and that increases in medical malpractice insurance premiums were due to other factors. Thus, the Court found that such a health care crisis did not exist. For these reasons, the caps were stricken as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Florida Constitution.

    Notably, because McCall involved a claim for wrongful death damages, the Florida Supreme Court addressed only that issue. Thus, it remains to be seen whether the damages caps applicable to personal injury medical malpractice cases not resulting in death will also be stricken as unconstitutional.

    With the elimination of wrongful death damages caps, concerns may be raised as to how to address excessive “runaway jury” verdicts. An increase in medical malpractice claims paid may contribute to problems with patient care access, baseless litigation and a decrease in the number of available medical providers. Thus, insurance carriers and health care providers alike should be prepared to face these concerns in the future.