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Will Florida Bring Back Caps on Medical Malpractice Damages?
Earlier this year, a bill was filed in the Florida House to reinstate caps on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases. The bill follows a 2017 decision of the Florida Supreme Court striking down such damage caps as unconstitutional. While the bill in question (HB 7077 - Medical Malpractice) was withdrawn from consideration in May and subsequently died in the Health & Human Services Committee, it was merely the latest in a nationwide struggle between courts and legislatures to define the proper scope of non-economic damages in personal injury cases.
Below, we’ll take a look at Florida’s previous medical malpractice damages cap, the Supreme Court case that struck it down, and subsequent attempts to revive it. For more information about medical malpractice claims and the damages available through them, please contact a Tampa medical malpractice attorney.
Damages: What Are They?
“Damages” is the legal word for the loss or harm that results to a person from the wrongful acts of another person. To remedy that damage, the law compensates the victim through a monetary award. Damages are then split into two major types: compensatory and punitive. Compensatory damages are designed to “compensate” the victim for specific types of injuries for which assigning a monetary value is fairly easy, such as medical bills, loss of wages, and loss of future earning capacity. Compensatory damages can also include non-economic damages like pain and suffering, loss of consortium, and loss of enjoyment of life. Punitive damages do not compensate the victim; rather, they are designed to punish wrongdoers for behavior that is considered to be particularly willful, wanton, or egregious.
Damage Caps in Florida
Florida’s previous cap on medical malpractice damages, codified at § 766.118 of the Florida Statutes, was passed by the Florida Legislature and signed into law by then-governor Jeb Bush in 2003. Its primary purpose was to limit the availability of non-economic damages (like those discussed above) in medical malpractice cases. Under this statute, non-economic damages were capped at $500,000 per claimant in actions against medical practitioners for negligence. For cases in which the practitioner’s negligence resulted in death or a permanent vegetative state, this limit was increased to $1 million. However, even in cases that did not result in death or a permanent vegetative state, the statute allowed courts to award up to $1 million if (1) it determined that a manifest injustice would occur unless the increased damages were awarded, or (2) if the practitioner’s negligence resulted in a catastrophic injury to the patient. “Catastrophic injuries” were limited to:
- Spinal cord injury resulting in severe paralysis
- Amputation of an arm, hand, foot, or leg
- Severe brain injury
- Second- or third-degree burns of 25% or more of the total body surface or third-degree burns of 5% or more of the face and hands
- Loss of reproductive organs resulting in an inability to procreate
While proponents of § 766.118 argued that it would lower healthcare costs by reducing the liability of healthcare providers, detractors countered that it unfairly punished injured patients and unjustly enriched tortious providers and their insurance companies.
The End of Damage Caps: North Broward Hospital District v. Kalitan
In 2017, the Supreme Court of Florida struck down § 766.118 in North Broward Hospital District v. Kalitan. In that case, the court held that the damage caps of the statute violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Florida constitution. The court was particularly concerned with the manner in which the statute classed medical malpractice victims, which could lead to arbitrary discrimination between claimants and reduce damage awards for plaintiffs who suffer the most serious injuries. Because the court found that there was “no evidence of a continuing medical malpractice insurance crisis justifying the arbitrary and invidious discrimination between medical malpractice victims,” it held that there was no rational relationship between the damage caps and alleviating the alleged crisis. Thus, it held that the damage caps were unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the Florida Constitution.
A Second Attempt: HB 7077
HB 7077 was the Florida Legislature’s second attempt to impose damage caps in medical malpractice cases and was specifically intended to circumvent the Supreme Court’s decision in North Broward Hospital District v. Kalitan. Rep. Tommy Gregory characterized it as “clearly the Legislature saying, ‘Hey, the Supreme Court of Florida, you need to respect the separation of powers…We are telling the court, “You decided these cases contrary to our intent.” The bill also contains a provision stating that the Supreme Court’s rulings were “decided contrary to legislative intent and existing case law interpreting the equal protection clauses of the state and federal constitutions.”
The new bill would impose a graduated scale of caps on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases that begin at $500,000 for claims against practitioners up to $1 million for medical malpractice resulting in death or a permanent vegetative states. For non-practitioners, the caps would begin at $750,000 for basic cases and increase to $1.5 million in cases that resulted in death or a permanent vegetative state. Supporters of the bill renewed their argument that Florida suffers from a medical malpractice insurance cost crisis, stating statistics show that Florida’s loss rate is the highest in the nation and twice the national average.
HB 7077 was indefinitely postponed and withdrawn from consideration in May, and it subsequently died in the Health and Human Services Committee. Thus, for now — and for the foreseeable future — medical malpractice claims in Florida continue to be free of damage caps.
Contact a Tampa Medical Malpractice Attorney for More Information
Just because Florida does not have a cap on damages in medical malpractice cases now does not mean that that will always be the case. HB 7077 is merely part of a nationwide trend of attempts to deny injured patients full recovery, and another bill like it could come up at any time. If you or someone you love has suffered an injury due to medical malpractice and you would like to explore your legal options, please contact a Tampa medical malpractice attorney at Alley, Clark & Greiwe by using our online contact form or calling us at 813-222-0977.