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Supreme Court Declares Caps on Med Mal Damages Unconstitutional

Equal protection under Florida's constitution was the basis for the 5-2 vote of the Florida Supreme Court last week, ending 11 years of caps on damages in medical malpractice cases. The ruling in a case involving the death of a young woman, who died in Ft. Walton Beach after giving birth to a son, applies only to death cases.

Gov. Jeb Bush pushed the damages caps law in 2003, saying that caps would lower insurance rates for doctors and keep them from moving away from Florida. However, in its ruling, the Supreme Court questioned whether there was ever a medical malpractice crisis that needed to be addressed. The damages cap in the now-discredited law applied to non-economic damages, such as a person's pain and suffering, including mental suffering.

In the Ft. Walton case, the mother of the young woman who died cried from her grief throughout the trial, and the parents had not touched their daughter's bedroom, which had been decorated for the baby’s arrival from her death through the time of trial. That is the kind of grief that can be compensated in non-economic damages, but the law had limited that category of damages in death cases arbitrarily at 1 million dollars. The court wrote, "The cap on non-economic damages serves no purpose other than to arbitrarily punish the most grievously injured or their surviving family members."

In malpractice cases resulting only in injury, the law still caps non-economic damages at $500,000 for pain, suffering, and the inability to enjoy a normal life. To my knowledge, no cases are before the Supreme Court on that issue, but some are in the pipeline in lower appellate courts. It seems likely that the court will apply the same constitutional reasoning to cases involving injury from medical malpractice when one reaches it. This ruling represents a huge change in medical malpractice law in Florida.


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