Medical Malpractice Decision of the Year: Florida Supreme Court voids the $1M cap on noneconomic damages for a patient’s wrongful death

By Alex Stein

We are just in mid-March, but yesterday’s decision of the Florida Supreme Court, McCall v. United States, — So.3d —-, 2014 WL 959180 (Fla. 2014), is – and will likely remain – the most important medical malpractice decision of 2014.

The case at bar presented a particularly egregious example of medical malpractice: a young woman died after delivering a healthy baby as a result of preventable loss of blood. This tragic event took place at an air-force base hospital. The victim’s survivors therefore filed their medical malpractice suit with a federal court pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). Under FTCA, the suit was governed by Florida law. Following bench trial, the United States District Court found the United States liable, but applied Florida’s $1,000,000 cap on wrongful-death noneconomic damages recoverable for medical malpractice. On appeal, the victim’s survivors challenged the cap’s constitutionality. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision, but certified questions of Florida constitutional law with regard to the cap.

The Florida Supreme Court rephrased the certified questions as follows:
Does the statutory cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages, Fla. Stat. § 766.118, violate the right to equal protection under Article I, Section 2 of the Florida Constitution?

Florida’s Equal Protection Clause mandates that “All natural persons, female and male alike, are equal before the law.” Hence, “everyone is entitled to stand before the law on equal terms with, to enjoy the same rights as belong to, and to bear the same burden as are imposed upon others in a like situation.” Caldwell v. Mann, 26 So.2d 788, 790 (Fla. 1946).

The challenged statute, Fla. Stat. § 766.118, provided that “The total noneconomic damages recoverable by all claimants from all practitioner defendants [in the event of wrongful death] shall not exceed $1 million in the aggregate.” The capped damages included pain, suffering, lost consortium, emotional distress and other noneconomic losses.

Based on its previous precedent, St. Mary’s Hospital, Inc. v. Phillipe, 769 So.2d 961 (Fla. 2000), the Court ruled that the cap violates the Equal Protection Clause “because it imposes unfair and illogical burdens on injured parties when an act of medical negligence gives rise to multiple claimants.” The Court explained that, under this cap, medical malpractice claimants “will not receive the same rights to full compensation because of arbitrarily diminished compensation for legally cognizable claims.” For example, in the case at bar, the noneconomic damages suffered by the victim’s parents were assessed at $1,500,000 and her surviving son’s noneconomic damage was determined to be $500,000. The cap reduced those damages by 50% for each claimant (from $2M to $1M in the aggregate). If the cap were to apply, each of the victim’s parents would have recovered $375,000 and her son would have received $250,000. Contrast this case with an identical scenario featuring a victim with no parents: under that scenario, the victim’s child would recover $500,000 rather than $250,000.

After finding this inequality, the Court went on to determine whether it can be justified by a compelling state interest. In that most important part of its decision, the Court has found no rational relationship between the cap and its stated purpose: “the alleged medical malpractice insurance crisis in Florida.” The Court ruled in that connection that the Task Force responsible for the cap’s enactment based its recommendations to the Legislature on fact-free speculations about “medical malpractice crisis” and the cap’s ability to resolve it. Based on amici briefs and important studies by Tom Baker, Neil Vidmar and other leading scholars, the Court determined that there is no medical malpractice insurance crisis in Florida. Moreover, the Court used empirical data to project that, had there been such a crisis, it could not be alleviated by caps on noneconomic damages (for my argument that excessive medical liability should be fixed by narrowing the applicable liability rules rather than by capping damages, see here, at pp. 1253-57).

I predict that this important decision will soon be used to challenge similar caps that exist in other states. Whether those challenges will succeed is hard to tell at this point.

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