Florida: Medical malpractice caps unconstitutionally arbitrary

The Florida Supreme Court has struck down the caps on non-economic damages that can be awarded in medical malpractice cases. The caps were passed into law in 2003 in the hopes that lowering total damage awards would deter excessive medical malpractice claims and reduce the cost of medical malpractice insurance. Instead, the justices found that the cap unfairly limits crucial compensation for those who need it most.

The law, which was considered a major achievement of the Jeb Bush administration, limited the amount in damages plaintiffs could be given for non-economic losses. Under Florida law, non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases are defined as "nonfinancial losses that would not have occurred but for the injury" that gave rise to the lawsuit, including:

  • Pain and suffering
  • Mental anguish
  • Physical impairment
  • Disfigurement
  • Inconvenience
  • Loss of capacity for enjoyment of life

A patient with non-catastrophic injuries could not legally obtain more than $500,000 for such losses. Even patients who suffered catastrophic injuries could have no more than $1 million in compensation for these losses, no matter how painful, disfiguring or debilitating they might be.

In the case before the high court, a jury awarded a woman with catastrophic injuries $2 million for past pain and suffering and another $2 million for expected pain and suffering in the future. Her award was reduced to about $3.3 million despite her daily mental anguish and physical disabilities.

In a 4-3 decision, the high court struck down the caps. First, the justices said that there was no evidence the damage caps had any impact on medical malpractice insurance rates and that, even if they had, that would not justify harming legitimately injured patients. Second, they ruled that the caps are arbitrary and unfairly harm the most seriously harmed patients.

"The caps on noneconomic damages ... arbitrarily reduce damage awards for plaintiffs who suffer the most drastic injuries," their opinion reads.

A lawyer for the plaintiff was hopeful about the ruling. She said that lifting the caps will not only help her own client but all victims of medical malpractice in Florida. She has watched deserving people settle for less than they needed and deserved. She has also seen law firms turn away cases because the expense of trying medical malpractice cases is so high and the caps tended to make them unprofitable.

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