Florida’s Supreme Court recently struck down the state law limiting the amount victims of medical malpractice can collect for non-economic damages in cases of wrongful death. The original case was filed by the family of an Air Force pilot who died from complications while giving birth. Wrongful death lawyers at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm take a closer look at this case, and what it means for Florida plaintiffs.
The pilot, 20-year-old Michelle McCall, was under the care of Air Force family medical personnel when she passed away, leaving her family not only with an immense loss, but significant medical bills and a newborn son without a mother as well. They filed suit against the medical unit, hoping to receive compensation for her wrongful death.
A Florida District Court determined that the family’s financial losses amounted to over $980,000, and their non-economic damages (for grief, pain and suffering, and loss of a mother and daughter) totaled $2 million. Based on a Florida Statute, the court then limited the non-economic damages to $1 million, which was the cap for all wrongful death medical malpractice cases, regardless of circumstance.
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The family appealed to the state’s Supreme Court, which determined that putting a cap on the non-economic damages irrationally impacted situations, like McCalls, where there were multiple claimants. The Court further stated that the damage cap made it unlikely that those who suffered a devastating loss (or in cases where there are multiple survivors), the claimants would be not be fully compensated for their losses at $1 million.
Why Put Limits on Damages At All?
Proponents of placing caps on non-economic damages argue that placing limits on the amount plaintiffs can collect will reduce the amount of doctors’ insurance, thus encouraging doctors to practicing in the state (conversely, higher malpractice insurance would deter physicians from working in the state). Despite years of politicians claiming this to be so, historical data tells us that non-economic damages caps in no way influence where a doctor will work.
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This point was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court, when it noted that the number of physicians practicing in Florida actually increased during a recent period when juries were awarding large amounts to plaintiffs. The Court stated that the caps arbitrarily reduce the rights of medical malpractice victims.
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In a case like McCall’s where there are multiple claimants (her son, her parents, and her son’s father), the $1 million would have to be split between all of them. This unjustly prevents all claimants from receiving compensation for their losses. What’s more, the basis of these damage caps is largely irrational, as the relationship between non-economic awards and medical malpractice insurance is unfounded.
The Supreme Court wrote in its opinion that Florida’s damage cap has the effect of saving a modest amount for many (the state’s doctors) by imposing devastating costs on a few (those most severely injured). These grievously injured plaintiffs are subjected to division and reduction of their damages not based on the merits of their case, but simply because of the existence of this cap.
This Supreme Court decision was groundbreaking in many ways. First, and most importantly, it struck down statutory caps on non-economic damages in malpractice cases that resulted in a wrongful death. This means that those bringing malpractice lawsuits based on personal injury in general -where no death was involved – will still be subject to damages caps.
This case also has significant importance because Florida legislators are preparing to vote on state health care laws, which concern residents’ right to sue physicians for negligence. The law at issue would allow doctors to have patients sign waivers that would require them to bring and legal issues to arbitration, rather than court (AmEx has a similar arbitration clause, which was recently heard by SCOTUS in American Express v. Italian Colors Restaurant).
Medical malpractice attorneys at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm will continue to report on these and other court issues as they arise throughout the country. If you or someone you love was seriously injured or killed from medical negligence, contact our firm immediately. Our case reviews are always free, and available to injured patients nationwide.