A slim majority of the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday affirmed an appellate court decision that overturned a 2003 cap on medical malpractice awards in personal injury cases.
The 4-to-3 decision, stemming from a Broward County case, found that limiting pain-and-suffering damages in medical malpractice claims violated the Equal Protection Clause of the state Constitution.
The law was enacted under then-Gov. Jeb Bush and the state Legislature amid medical profession assertions that high damage awards were making malpractice insurance premiums unaffordable for physicians. Failure to limit awards could result in the state facing a doctor shortage, physicians told lawmakers. Plaintiffs attorneys opposed capping awards on grounds injured patients would be unfairly affected.
The majority opinion, signed by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and Justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince, concluded that caps on noneconomic damage awards “arbitrarily reduce damage awards for plaintiffs who suffer the most drastic injuries.”
In the dissent, Justice Ricky Polston said the majority overstepped its bounds. “It is the Legislature’s task to decide whether a medical malpractice crisis exists” or has been abated, he wrote. Polston’s dissent was joined by justices Charles Canady and Alan Lawson.
The case began in 2007, when a Broward County woman, Susan Kalitan, underwent surgery at what is now Broward Health Medical Center to fix carpal tunnel syndrome in her wrist. As she was given anesthesia, a tube placed in her throat perforated her esophagus, the court ruling states. She awoke complaining of pain in her chest and neck and was discharged with a drug for the chest pain.
After being found unresponsive at her home the next day, Kalitan underwent lifesaving surgery to repair her esophagus and was in a drug-induced coma for several weeks. She underwent additional surgeries and intensive therapy to begin eating again. She testified that she continues to suffer from pain in the upper half of her body and from serious mental disorders resulting from the procedure.
In the lawsuit against Broward North Hospital District, a jury awarded Kalitan $4.7 million in total damages, including $2 million for past pain and suffering and $2 million for future pain and suffering. But following post-trial motions, the court reduced the damages by $3.3 million, prompting Kalitan to ask the 4th District Court of Appeal to reinstate the jury award.
The Florida Justice Association, a lobbying organization for trial lawyers, praised Thursday’s ruling. In a statement, interim Executive Director Paul Jess called it “a resounding victory for patients” and a “step forward that will promote safer health care in Florida.”
The Florida Medical Association also responded to the ruling. President David Becker M.D. said in a statement that the association “is disappointed with the Court’s ruling, but given past decisions, it was not unexpected.” Becker added “the FMA will continue to do all it can to ensure that the costs of the medical liability system do not unfairly impact physicians’ ability to practice medicine.”
Thursday’s ruling, which dealt with malpractice suits alleging personal injuries, followed a 2014 ruling overturning caps in wrongful-death malpractice cases.