By: Dave Davidson
On June 8, 2017 the Florida Supreme Court, in a 4-3 opinion, ruled that the legislatively-established caps on non-economic damages (such as awards for pain and suffering) in medical malpractice cases are unconstitutional. In 2014 the Florida Supreme Court determined the cap established for wrongful death claims was unconstitutional. The 2017 decision now does away with the remaining caps.
The caps for non-wrongful death claims have been in place since 2003. The cap on these damages was set at $500,000, unless the injured party could show that the injury resulted in a permanent vegetative state, death, or catastrophic injury. In those significant-injury cases, the cap was set at $1,000,000. Additionally, if the injury was caused by non-providers, the limit was raised to $750,000, or $1,500,000 for the significant-injury claims.
The Florida Legislature established the caps after finding that the state was “in the midst of a medical malpractice insurance crisis of unprecedented magnitude.” As set out in the Dissenting Opinion to last week’s decision, the legislature concluded that the crisis “threatens the quality and availability of health care for all Florida citizens;” that the “cost of medical malpractice insurance has increased dramatically during the past decade;” and that “the current cost[s] are substantially higher than the national average.” Physicians were therefore forced to “practice medicine without professional liability insurance, to leave Florida, to not perform high-risk procedures, or to retire early…” The legislature recognized that “the high cost of medical malpractice claims can be substantially alleviated by imposing a limitation on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice actions.” (All legislative history cites from Ch. 2003-416, at § 1, Laws of Fla.)
On June 8, 2017, the majority of the Court found that the caps violated the state’s Equal Protection Clause, which provides that “[a]ll natural persons, female and male alike, are equal before the law.” Despite the legislative findings, the Court determined that there was “no rational relationship between the personal injury non-economic damage caps… and alleviating this purported [medical malpractice insurance] crisis.” In fact, the Court concluded that, “there is no evidence of a continuing medical malpractice insurance crisis” in Florida. The Court stated that there was no evidence demonstrating that the caps helped solve the medical malpractice crisis, and found that the caps could adversely impact the more-severely injured individuals. The majority therefore found no justification for “the arbitrary and invidious discrimination between medical malpractice victims.”
This opinion clearly signals the end of the road for Florida’s caps on damages. While it is too soon to identify all the repercussions of the opinion, I am certain that its most immediate impact will be to change the tenor of negotiations of currently pending malpractice claims, since there are no limits on what can be demanded for pain and suffering, even for minor injuries. It will be also interesting to see if malpractice insurance premiums rise, potentially re-creating the “purported crisis” the Supreme Court could not identify.