Florida Supreme Court Strikes Down Wrongful Death Non-Economic Damages Cap for Med Mal Cases

 

On March 13, 2014, the Florida Supreme Court, in a 5-2 ruling, issued its long-awaited opinion following review of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision in Estate of McCall v. United States, 642 F.3d 944 (11th Cir. 2011), and answered the following rephrased certified question in the affirmative:

Does the statutory cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages, Fla. Stat. §766.118, violate the right to equal protection under Article I, Section 2 of the Florida Constitution?

 

The Supreme Court did not address three additional questions certified by the Eleventh Circuit.

 

To read the Court’s opinion, click here. 

 

Background and Earlier Court Proceedings

Hours after giving birth, Michele McCall went into shock and cardiac arrest as a result of severe blood loss.  She never regained consciousness and was removed from life support. The Estate of Michele McCall, Mrs. McCall’s parents, and the father of Mrs. McCall’s son sued the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act, as Mrs. McCall’s care took place at a military hospital.  The United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida found the United States liable and determined that the plaintiffs’ economic damages totaled $980,462.40 and that their non-economic damages totaled $2,000,000.00.  However, the district court limited the plaintiffs’ total recovery of non-economic damages to $1,000,000.00 pursuant to Florida Statutes §766.118(2) (2005), which imposes a cap on wrongful death non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases. 

 

§766.118(2) provides:

 

(2) Limitation on noneconomic damages for negligence of practitioners.--

 

(a) With respect to a cause of action for personal injury or wrongful death arising from medical negligence of practitioners, regardless of the number of such practitioner defendants, noneconomic damages shall not exceed $500,000 per claimant. No practitioner shall be liable for more than $500,000 in noneconomic damages, regardless of the number of claimants.

 

(b) Notwithstanding paragraph (a), if the negligence resulted in a permanent vegetative state or death, the total noneconomic damages recoverable from all practitioners, regardless of the number of claimants, under this paragraph shall not exceed $1 million. In cases that do not involve death or permanent vegetative state, the patient injured by medical negligence may recover noneconomic damages not to exceed $1 million if:

 

1. The trial court determines that a manifest injustice would occur unless increased noneconomic damages are awarded, based on a finding that because of the special circumstances of the case, the noneconomic harm sustained by the injured patient was particularly severe; and

 

2. The trier of fact determines that the defendant's negligence caused a catastrophic injury to the patient.

 

(c) The total noneconomic damages recoverable by all claimants from all practitioner defendants under this subsection shall not exceed $1 million in the aggregate.

 

On appeal to the Eleventh Circuit, the plaintiffs argued that the statutory cap violates the Equal Protection Clause and constitutes an unlawful taking.  They also asserted that the cap violates numerous provisions of the Florida Constitution.  The Eleventh Circuit held that §766.118 does not constitute a taking in violation of the Florida Constitution and that it does not violate either the Equal Protection Clause or the Takings Clause of the U.S. Constitution.  However, the court certified to the Florida Supreme Court four questions regarding the remaining challenges to the statutory cap under the Florida Constitution.

 

Supreme Court Proceedings

The Florida Supreme Court found that §766.118 violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Florida Constitution, which provides that all natural persons are equal before the law, because the cap on wrongful death non-economic damages imposes unfair, illogical burdens on injured parties when medical negligence gives rise to multiple claims.  Claimants in cases involving multiple claims do not receive the same rights or full compensation as compared to claimants in cases involving one claim.  In this case, three separate non-economic damage determinations were assessed by the district court.  The damages suffered by Mrs. McCall’s parents were determined to be $750,000.00 each and the damages suffered by Mrs. McCall’s surviving son were determined to be $500,000.00.  Applying the caps, the federal court reduced these amounts so that each claimant would receive only half of his or her respective damages.  However, if Mrs. McCall had been only survived by her son, he would have recovered the full amount of his non-economic damages:  $500,000.00.  Thus, the cap limited the recovery of a surviving child simply because others also suffered losses. 

 

The Court stated that in addition to causing discrimination between classes of claimants, the caps also violate Florida’s Equal Protection Clause because they bear no rational relationship to a legitimate state objective.  In analyzing this issue, the Court analyzed at length the Florida Legislature’s justification for the caps – the alleged medical malpractice insurance crisis in Florida – and found that there was no support for such a conclusion.  Moreover, even if there were such a crisis, there was no evidence that the statutory caps alleviated the crisis.  Finally, even if there were a crisis when §766.118 was enacted, no rational basis existed to justify the continued use of the caps. 

 

Conclusion

 

In sum, the Court held that the caps on wrongful death non-economic damages set forth in §766.118 violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Florida Constitution.  As the Court made clear, however, “The legal analyses for personal injury damages and wrongful death damages are not the same.  The present case is exclusively related to wrongful death, and our analysis is limited accordingly.”  As such, the Court’s opinion is not applicable to the caps in place when a medical malpractice claimant does not die.

 

 

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