The constitution most often comes into play in criminal cases, and that is where it usually makes the most news. Sometimes the constitution can provide or take away rights or duties to victims in injury cases. Recently, the Florida Supreme Court, citing Florida’s constitution, which in many ways mirrors the U.S. Constitution, reached a landmark decision, restoring vital rights to those who have been victims of medical malpractice.
The Story of Malpractice Damage Caps
This story begins many years ago, in the early 2000s, when doctors and insurance companies, citing what they saw as runaway verdicts and out-of-control juries, sought to limit the rights of malpractice victims.
The lobbying groups embarked on a campaign to add language to the Florida Constitution limiting what a jury could award to victims of medical malpractice in Court. They proposed an amendment capping the amount of non-economic damages a victim could recover.
Non-economic damages are those that cannot be counted, such as pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, loss of family companionship, or mental anguish.
The opposition argued that limiting damages could make it difficult for malpractice victims to find attorneys to take malpractice cases, which can be expensive, risky, and time consuming.
But the public was deceived into thinking that malpractice verdicts were excessive, even though in truth many verdicts are entered against victims, and even though the verdicts that seem large often are necessary to compensate victims for permanent and lifelong disability.
The Damage Caps Passed
The damage caps amendment measure passed, and for some time, malpractice victims were limited in what a jury could award to them by the cap. The caps depended on the severity of the injury; the least severe injuries were capped at $500,000, up to $1 million for those who are catastrophically injured.
Where malpractice resulted in death, Florida’s wrongful death statute applied. That statute also had caps on damages.
Case Challenges Malpractice Caps as Being Unconstitutional
In 2007, Susan Kalitan entered the hospital for carpal tunnel syndrome surgery. During surgery, a tube pierced her esophagus. She complained of pain after the surgery, but failing to check for or discover the tear in her esophagus, the hospital sent her home. She worsened and slipped into a coma. When she awoke, she underwent significant therapy and continued to suffer pain in her upper body and mental disability.
She sued for malpractice, and the jury awarded her $4 million, but after trial, the amount of the award was reduced in accordance with the constitutional cap on malpractice damages.
The victim challenged the cap on damages, claiming that it violated the equal protection clause of the Florida Constitution, which, much like the U.S. Constitution, generally prohibits a law from treating one class of citizens differently than another outside of a compelling state purpose.
Court Looks to Prior, Similar Case
There was already some basis in the law supporting the victim’s challenge to damage caps. Previously, the Florida Supreme Court had ruled that caps on wrongful death damages where the death was caused by malpractice were unconstitutional.
The Court had reasoned that the law treated a victim whose damage was under the cap differently than one whose damages were over the cap. When the victim with damages over the cap would have damages reduced to the cap maximum, that victim was receiving only a percentage of his or her damages whereas another other victim under the cap was receiving the full amount of damages.
Not only did the caps discriminate between victims, they actually served to harm victims who had been more grievously injured.
Although the rationale for the caps in malpractice that results in wrongful death cases was to curb raising medical insurance rates, the Court found no relationship between verdict awards and increases in insurance premiums for health care providers. It refused to allow a few catastrophically injured victims to suffer by receiving less than full compensation in an “experiment” to see if insurance premiums would lower.
Thus, the caps in wrongful death cases were found to be unconstitutional.
Court Applies Same Rationale and Strikes Down Malpractice Damage Caps
The victims here argued that the same rationale striking down damage caps should be applied to malpractice victims who are injured, but not killed by the malpractice.
The Supreme Court agreed, and again cited the arbitrary nature of malpractice damage caps. The caps essentially were wrongly discriminating between classes of injury victims and violated the equal protection clause.
The Court noted that someone who had suffered a more catastrophic injury would have virtually no chance of full recovery, while those who are not injured as badly would.
The need for discriminating amongst injury victims also had vanished; unlike at the time caps were passed, when the state had declared an emergency in rising insurance rates, no such crisis or emergency existed at the present time. Even if there had been such a crisis, there was no mechanism in the law to make sure that the savings realized by insurance companies as a result of smaller verdicts would be passed on to health care providers and lower insurance premiums, as was the stated goal of the constitutional amendment.
Thus, the caps on medical malpractice damages for those who are injured, but who survive, were held unconstitutional, just as the damages for those who had suffered a wrongful death as a result of malpractice had been previously.
The case ends a long fight against damage caps. Victims can now have certainty that they will not have damage awards arbitrarily reduced based on a discriminatory law.
If you are injured as a result of medical malpractice, you now have a right to obtain full compensation for the value of your injuries. Contact Brill & Rinaldi today about a free consultation to discuss whether you may have a medical malpractice lawsuit available to you.