Victory for Medical Malpractice Wrongful Death Claimants

Recently, the Florida Supreme Court issued a major decision regarding statutory caps on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases. The case arose when a 20-year-old pregnant woman, the dependent of someone in the Air Force, was admitted to a government medical center with severe preeclampsia. The doctors induced labor and she delivered her child vaginally. However, she lost a lot of blood and didn’t deliver the placenta. She went into shock and cardiac arrest, lost consciousness and died.

Through her estate, her parents and her baby’s father sued for wrongful death and medical malpractice against the United States in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida. At a bench trial, the court determined that their economic damages were $980,462.30. Their noneconomic damages (items such as pain and suffering) were $2 million. The district court relying upon section 766.118(2), which covers wrongful death noneconomic damages, capped the damages at $1 million.

The plaintiffs appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the application of the cap. The appellate court ruled there was no controlling precedent and therefore certified four questions of law for the Florida Supreme Court to answer. These questions included whether the cap violated due process under the Florida Constitution, whether it violated the right of access to the courts, whether it violated the right to trial by jury, and whether it violated separation of powers.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled that the cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages does violate the Equal Protection Clause under the rational basis test. It explained that the test imposes unfair, illogical burdens on injured parties when an act of medical negligence gives rise to more than one claimant. In those circumstances, medical malpractice claimants are not given full compensation because the compensation is arbitrarily diminished for each one. The cap doesn’t have a rational relationship to its purpose of stemming an alleged crisis for med mal insurers, a crisis not supported by the data.

Those that argued for tort reform resulting in medical malpractice damages caps had argued that noneconomic damage awards by juries were the primary cause of a purported medical malpractice crisis in Florida. A task force had stated that the crisis could get worse, leading to unaffordable premiums. However, the court reasoned that there were other explanations for the rise in premiums like the insurance industry’s underwriting cycle. Moreover, the Court found that reports could note cite a direct correlation between damages caps and malpractice premiums dropping.

The court didn’t answer the other three questions because the Wrongful Death Act has its foundation in statute and the case at hand was brought under the Federal Tort Claims Act. The court only ruled in connection with wrongful death claims. This is critical because it does not necessarily apply to personal injury damage claims in general.

Florida legislators are preparing to vote on a health care law that will concern Florida residents’ right to sue physicians. This new law may permit physicians to require patients to sign waivers to the right to jury trial and require them to have their potential medical malpractice claims arbitrated. This is a huge victory, however, for Florida plaintiffs whose loved ones have died at the hands of careless, negligent or reckless doctors.

If your loved one died as a result of doctor error, contact the experienced Florida medical malpractice attorneys at Friedman, Rodman & Frank toll-free for a free consultation at (877) 448-8585.

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