Thursday, March 13, 2014, was a victorious day for those who have suffered as the result of medical malpractice, members of the plaintiff’s bar, and those who believe in equal protection of the law. March 13, 2014 marked the Florida Supreme Court’s 5-2 decision in McCall v. United States, wherein the Court ruled that the cap on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits violated the right to equal protection guaranteed by the Florida Constitution. The Equal Protection clause ensures that everyone is entitled to stand before the law on equal terms and enjoys the same rights and bears the same burden as others in a like situation. Caldwell v. Mann, 26 So. 2d 788, 790 (Fla. 1946). The legislative cap, outlined in § 766.118, Florida Statutes essentially limited the amount of money damages that one could collect for the negligence of medical practitioners. Damages were limited to $500,000 per claimant or $1 million in certain circumstances. Noneconomic damages refer to nonfinancial losses, including pain and suffering, inconvenience, physical impairment, mental anguish, loss of capacity for enjoyment of life and other nonfinancial losses.
The legislative enactment was the key component of the 2003 Legislature’s attempt to curb the “medical malpractice crisis” in Florida that was allegedly driving up malpractice insurance and running good doctors out of the state. This argument, however, was not supported by appropriate statistics, according to the court’s opinion. Although the cap on noneconomic damages limited the amount of money that insurance companies could pay injured victims of medical malpractice cases, nothing in the statute required insurance companies to use that savings to lower the insurance premiums for malpractice coverage. Thus, the court found that there was no merit supporting the argument that the caps were successful in obtaining the desired result. Justice Fred R. Lewis, writing the opinion for the court, stated that the damages cap provision of the statute violated the equal protection clause of the Florida Constitution by discriminating against “those who are most grievously injured, those who sustained the greatest damage and loss, and multiple claimants.” The statutory cap language makes this plainly evident.
A law will violate the equal protection clause when the law treats two groups of people differently, unless the law bears a rational relationship to a legitimate state interest. Typically, it is relatively easy for the state to show a legitimate state interest in order to have the law upheld. In this case, the court had no trouble finding that the statutory cap did not bear a rational relationship to its stated purpose, which was to address the “alleged medical malpractice insurance crisis in Florida.” Significantly, the Florida Supreme Court’s decision demonstrates just how arbitrary the caps were and how unsupported the arguments made by the proponents of medical malpractice tort reform turned out to be. The fact that the high state court went to great lengths to demonstrate that statistics utterly failed to support tort reformist’s arguments that medical malpractice claims were driving up insurance rates and forcing all the good doctors out of the state shows that there has been a shift in the perception of tort reform in the courts. The court’s opinion also unmasked the fact that the insurance companies lobbying for such reform have no statistical basis to support their arguments and are merely concerned about their corporate bottom line.
The decision is a step in the right direction in Florida and will hopefully drive momentum into changing the distorted views of many regarding tort reform in Florida. The court recognized the unfair burden that was placed on victims of medical malpractice by capping their damages—a burden that was not imposed on victims of other types of negligence. If you have been the victim of what you believe to be medical malpractice, the attorneys at Dolman Law Group can assist you with navigating you through your difficult time. Please call 727-451-6900 for more information.
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Clearwater, FL 33765