In April of this year, the Florida Supreme Court issued a major opinion regarding damage recovery in medical malpractice cases. It found that statutory caps on wrongful death non-economic damages were unconstitutional, violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Florida Constitution. The case originated from a pregnant woman named Michelle McCall, who received prenatal care at a United States Air Force clinic as a United States Air Force dependent through the Air Force’s primary practice department. Ms. McCall’s pregnancy had been healthy and routine until her last trimester when she was diagnosed with Preeclampsia and it was determined that her blood pressure was high.
Ms. McCall lost a large amount of blood throughout her delivery of a healthy baby boy, and her family who visited her after the delivery expressed concern about that large amount of blood lost. Ms. McCall also did not deliver placenta promptly. Although the available Air Force obstetrician on duty, Dr. Archibald, was able to deliver her placenta, he was not notified by the nurse anesthetist or any of the family doctors who had earlier attended to Ms. Call about her dangerously low blood pressure. Dr. Archibald then ordered an immediate blood count and, if necessary, a blood transfusion to account for any blood loss. It wasn’t until more than an hour after Dr. Archibald’s order that a nurse attempted to draw blood from Ms. McCall. At that point, she was unresponsive. She never regained consciousness and was removed from life support approximately 4 days later.
An action was filed against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act. The District Court for the Northern District of Florida awarded economic damages of $980,462.40. The District Court awarded non-economic damages of $2 million. However, after applying Florida’s statutory cap on non-economic damages based on medical malpractice claims, the non-economic damages were reduced to $1 million. The District Court denied the Petitioners’ motion, which alleged the cap was unconstitutional. The Petitioners then appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. The 11th Circuit did not disturb the lower court’s finding, but did allow Petitioners to certify questions to the Florida Supreme Court regarding whether the non-economic cap violated the Florida Constitution.
Non-economic losses refer to “non-financial losses…including pain and suffering, inconvenience, physical impairment, mental anguish…loss of capacity for enjoyment of life, and other non-financial losses to the extent the claimant is entitled to recover such damages under general law, including the Wrongful Death Act.” Sec. 766.202(8), Fla. Stat. (2005).
The Florida Supreme Court analyzed whether an Equal Protection violation was present in the case, and determined that section 766.118 did indeed violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Florida Constitution. They found that the statutory cap on wrongful death and non-economic damages fails because it “imposes unfair and illogical burdens on injured parties when an act on medical negligence gives rise to multiple claimants.” In such circumstances, medical malpractice claimants do not receive the same rights to full compensation because of arbitrarily diminished compensation for legally cognizable claims. Further, the statutory cap on wrongful death non-economic damages does not bear a rational relationship to the stated purpose that the cap is purported to address, the alleged medical malpractice insurance crisis in Florida.” Estate of Michelle McCall v. The United States of America, No. SC-11-1148 (Fla. 2014).
The court also lamented how large families like Ms. McCall’s lose because the cap limits what family members can recover, simply because other family members also sustained losses. The more family members there are and the greater their loss is, the less likely they are to be compensated for those losses. The court found that the effect of the law—to save “a modest amount for many by imposing devastating costs on a few”—is irrational and arbitrary.
The Florida legislature’s concern that non-economic caps were necessary because the state was in a Medical Malpractice Insurance crisis, and that physicians were leaving Florida as a result of medical malpractice liability insurance premiums being sky-high (since this State did not impose caps on non-economic damages), did not hold water, the court found. After analyzing the Governor’s Select Task Force and accompanying Senate testimony, the court noted that there is no evidence doctors are leaving Florida, and in fact, admissions to Florida medical schools are high and that the number of physicians has actually increased.
Furthermore, the data fails to establish that medical malpractice tort reform will even result in lower medical malpractice insurance premium rates. The data also fails to establish a rational relationship between the cap on wrongful death non-economic damages and the lowering of medical malpractice insurance premiums. Instead, the insurance companies may simply see a windfall from tort reform.
Finally, even if there were a crisis, there is no evidence to suggest one still exists, and as such, there is no rational basis between the cap imposed by 766.118 and any legitimate state purpose. The cap serves no purpose, other than to “arbitrarily punish the most grievously injured or their surviving family members.” Id. at 39.
This opinion was a major victory for grieving family members forever torn apart by the devastating consequences of medical malpractice. If your loved one was a victim of wrongful death due to medical malpractice, contact one of our skilled attorneys to discuss your options. We will help you recover any compensation to which you may be entitled.