How Could the Florida Supreme Court’s Landmark Decision on Malpractice Caps Impact Individual Cases?

Doctors stethoscope 1In a landmark 4-to-3 decision, the Florida Supreme Court recently declared that the statutory caps on noneconomic damages in medical negligence actions violated the state’s constitution by creating “arbitrary and invidious discrimination” between categories of medical malpractice victims without sufficient justification. This decision puts Florida with a number of other states that have expressly prohibited their own legislatures from enacting these types of statutory caps or (like Illinois and Wisconsin) have held damage caps to violate constitutional equal protection and separation of powers provisions. This decision, as well as the effect it’s likely to have on medical negligence cases involving severe injury or death, could greatly impact the citizens of Florida.

Equal Protection Violations

The statute at issue has capped noneconomic damages in medical malpractice actions at $500,000 per claimant for the majority of injuries, or up to $1 million per claimant in wrongful death actions or those in which the claimant was in a permanent vegetative state. In some rare cases, claimants who were not killed or rendered permanently vegetative could be awarded up to $1 million in these types of damages only if “manifest injustice” would occur by denying this extra award. 

These statutes prevented juries from awarding more than the stated amounts, regardless of the egregiousness of the conduct or the severity of the injuries sustained. If a jury returned an award in excess of these limits, the judge was required to reduce this award before entering it for final judgment. 

The Florida Supreme Court held that these limits violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Florida Constitution. This decision came shortly after this court’s decision in Estate of McCall v. U.S., where a similar statute imposing caps in wrongful death cases was struck down due to its “arbitrary” application and lack of a compelling state objective. Using largely the same rationale adopted by McCall in 2014, the Florida Supreme Court struck down these caps as arbitrary and lacking any rational relationship with the legislature’s stated objective of alleviating an alleged malpractice crisis. 

The Future of Noneconomic Damage Awards 

Although this decision garnered a majority, it was a narrow one; three justices dissented, finding that the majority decision overstepped its bounds by interfering in the legislature’s duty to determine the existence and scope of a medical malpractice crisis and decide whether to amend its own statutes. 

The majority disagreed, arguing that the legislature’s enactment of limits on these damages was in itself an overreach of its power; the decision of when and how much to award to an injured plaintiff lies before the jury as part of the judicial branch. 

Because of this narrow majority, as well as the legislature’s ability to draft a new statute that sets out more clearly the need for caps in medical malpractice actions, declaring noneconomic damage caps gone for good may be premature. However, those whose cases have yet to go before a jury should be able to benefit from limitless liability for the time being.