Medical Malpractice Fight Goes On, Cap Question to State Supreme Court

By: Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida
By: Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida
Eight years after lawmakers overhauled the state

doctor is measuring the pulse of her patient

Tallahassee, FL -- August 29, 2011 --

Eight years after lawmakers overhauled the state's medical-malpractice laws, groups are preparing for a possible showdown in the Florida Supreme Court about the constitutionality of a cap on legal damages.

Groups such as the Florida Justice Association, AARP and the American Bar Association have filed briefs this month supporting a challenge to a $1 million cap on pain-and-suffering damages that was a high-profile part of the 2003 overhaul.

On the other side, Attorney General Pam Bondi and a wide range of medical groups have indicated they will file briefs in support of the law, according to an online Supreme Court docket. Supporters have long argued that such caps are needed to hold down medical-malpractice insurance costs for doctors and other health providers.

The case stems from the 2006 death of 20-year-old Michelle McCall shortly after she gave birth at Fort Walton Beach Medical Center. McCall, who is identified in court records as an Air Force "dependent,'' was treated at the hospital by Air Force doctors after being diagnosed with high blood pressure and a serious condition known as preeclampsia.

McCall's family members sued the federal government, and a court ruled they should receive $3 million, including $2 million in non-economic --- or pain and suffering --- damages. But the judge reduced those non-economic damages to $1 million because of the 2003 law.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this year ruled the cap does not violate the federal Constitution but also said the Florida Supreme Court should address the issue under the state constitution.

That has prompted a flurry of filings this month, as opponents seek to get the cap tossed out on several constitutional grounds. Justices have not scheduled oral arguments in the case.

"Even if this Court accepts at face value the dubious notion that limiting jury awards in medical malpractice cases will significantly reduce doctors liability premiums and ensure the availability of quality medical care for all Floridians, it is manifestly arbitrary and unfair to impose the cost of this public benefit on the relatively few most seriously harmed victims of medical malpractice," attorneys for the McCall family argued in a brief.

But in its ruling earlier this year, a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Legislature "identified a legitimate governmental purpose" in approving the cap.

"The Florida Legislature could reasonably have concluded that such a cap would reduce damage awards and in turn make medical malpractice insurance more affordable and health care more affordable,'' the ruling said.

The 2003 medical-malpractice law spurred one of Tallahassee's biggest political fights of the past decade. Caps on non-economic damages were a lightning-rod issue during the debate, as doctors and former Gov. Jeb Bush pushed for $250,000 limits.

After months of battling, lawmakers approved a compromise that included limits of $500,000 or $1 million, depending on the circumstances and the number of people involved in a case.

In its brief, the American Bar Association said it did not take a position on Florida constitutional issues. But it said it opposes non-economic damage caps because they "discourage lawyers from taking meritorious cases where economic damages are low and thus undermine the ability of a significant number of injured persons to seek redress in the courts."


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