Fla.'s Damages Cap for Medical-Malpractice Death Cases Struck Down

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on March 26, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In case you missed it, the Florida Supreme Court recently struck down the state's damages cap on wrongful death awards resulting caused by medical malpractice.

The state law placed a $1 million limit on the amount of money people could be awarded for pain and suffering when someone dies from medical malpractice.

Why was the cap on damages for these types of cases struck down?

Non-Economic Damages at Issue

In 2003, Sunshine State lawmakers passed a law capping payment for non-economic damages -- such as pain and suffering, loss of consortium, and emotional distress -- in wrongful death cases caused by medical negligence. The law capped such damages to $500,000 or $1 million, depending on the number of providers and survivors involved, Reuters reports.

The law was signed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush and enacted by a Republican-controlled state legislature, reportedly to keep insurance rates down for doctors. They claimed doctors were leaving Florida because of a "medical malpractice insurance crisis."

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the damage limits did not violate the U.S. Constitution, but said the Florida Supreme Court should consider state constitutional issues.

Where's the 'Crisis'?

In a 5-2 ruling, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the state's medical malpractice-related wrongful death damages cap violates the equal protection clause of Florida's constitution.

The state argued the damage cap was necessary in the medical malpractice context. The general idea is that without a cap, juries might award millions of dollars in non-economic damages, which the doctor's medical malpractice insurance company would then have to pay. That liability would make doctors' insurance rates go up which, in turn, would drive doctors away from Florida.

But the court didn't buy that argument. Instead, Florida justices ruled the damages cap did not bear a rational relationship to the state's proffered legitimate state interest: the purported medical malpractice insurance crisis in Florida. The court ruled there is no continuing medical malpractice crisis (the court was skeptical there ever was one), so the damages cap is now arbitrary and unfair.

The court determined the damages cap failed on equal protection grounds because it "irrationally" affects wrongful death cases where there are multiple parties than those with a single claimant. The cap unreasonably impacted wrongful death victims with large families, the court ruled.

The decision will likely be used to challenge similar caps that exist in other states.

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