Florida Supreme Court Rules on Medical Malpractice Wrongful Death Damage Caps

It is unfortunate, but we occasionally see instances where medical negligence causes a person to suffer from severe injuries which result in death. In these cases, surviving members of the victim’s family may bring a suit for wrongful death against the healthcare professional. While the financial costs of losing a loved one are significant, it is also an emotionally devastating event. The survivors of a patient deserve compensation for their mental pain and suffering, but have previously faced difficulties getting the full amount they deserve.

In Florida medical malpractice cases, a claimant is limited in recovering noneconomic damages. Noneconomic damages are those that do not compensate an injured person for their financial losses, but instead are compensation for pain and suffering, mental anguish, and physical impairment. An injured person generally is only allowed to recover a maximum of $500,000 in noneconomic damages. However, the law allows an award of up to $1 million if a medical professional’s negligence resulted in a permanent vegetative state or death of the patient. It is significant to understand that the law caps these damages at the listed amounts, regardless of the number of claimants involved.

Until now, these Florida laws have limited the amount of recovery in wrongful death cases. However, the Florida Supreme Court recently addressed the constitutionality of Florida’s damage caps and held that the limit on wrongful death noneconomic damage violates the Equal Protection Clause of Florida’s Constitution.

Estate of Michelle Evette McCall, et al. vs. United States began as a tort claim based on medical malpractice. The case involved a pregnant woman who went to a United States Air Force medical facility suffering with complications from her pregnancy. During the course of the medical treatment, several errors were made, ultimately resulting in the patient’s death. Her estate, which included the patient’s son and parents, brought the suit.

The United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida found the United States liable under federal tort claims laws and entered judgment for economic, or financial, damages in the amount of $980,462.40. In addition to economic damages, the District Court also entered judgment for noneconomic damages in the amount of $2 million, with $500,000 awarded to the patient’s son, and $750,000 awarded to each of her parents.

Notwithstanding that judgment, the District Court was forced to limit the noneconomic damages in accordance with Florida laws. The case was appealed, and the appeals court allowed questions regarding the constitutionality of the laws to be determined by the Florida Supreme Court.

In holding the wrongful death damage caps unconstitutional, the Florida Supreme Court explained that the limitations imposed unfair burdens in those situations where medical malpractice gives rise to numerous claimants. Where there are claims brought by multiple individuals, the Supreme Court found that the damage caps arbitrarily reduced compensation for legally recognized claims. The Supreme Court noted that in cases where there are more people affected by an individual’s death, less damages are actually available. Accordingly, the Supreme Court struck down the law, as it violated the Florida Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

In its opinion, the Supreme Court also addressed arguments regarding medical malpractice insurance, and the effect that rising insurance premiums has on Florida’s medical professionals. There was evidence that insurance premiums did not reduce the number of practicing physicians, and that jury verdicts made up only a small part of medical malpractice payments. According to the court, the limits on damages did not link strongly enough to the justifications for enacting the law.

If you or someone you love has experienced the devastation of losing someone due to medical negligence, the Southwest Florida wrongful death attorneys at Lusk, Drasites & Tolisano can help you with your claim. Our compassionate legal team will work to get you the compensation you deserve. Contact us online or call toll-free at (800) 238-7442 for a free initial consultation.

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