Florida Supreme Court Asked To Revisit Need For Medical Malpractice Damage Limits

A Florida appeals court indicates the state’s Supreme Court should determine if there is actually a medical malpractice “crisis” in the state, necessitating arbitrary caps which limit the amount of compensation awarded to plaintiffs who have suffered severe pain and injuries.

The request to reconsider the grounds for caps on non-economic damages came from the 2nd District Court of Appeals last week, after the court was forced to dismiss a medical malpractice claim brought by the children of a woman who allegedly died due to botched medical care.

In an opinion (PDF) issued on October 18, the appeals court affirmed a lower court’s dismissal of a medical malpractice lawsuit filed by the children of Ramona Reyes, who sought non-economic damages for the pain and suffering of their mother as a result of a wrongful death allegedly caused by Dr. Francisco A. Rodriguez.

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The decision to affirm the dismissal was based on a Florida Supreme Court ruling in 2000, known as Mizrahi v. North Miami Medical Center, Ltd. At the time, a law passed in Florida claimed there was a medical malpractice insurance “crisis” in the state, which required limits on non-economic damages to prevent doctors from leaving the state due to the rising insurance premiums. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Mizrahi upheld the law on that basis.

Reyes’ children, Sandra Santiago and Norma Caceres, indicate the law violates their constitutional equal-protection rights, arguing that there is no crisis. The 2nd District Court of Appeals opinion urges the state’s highest court to look at the issue again nearly two decades later, suggesting that Santiago and Caceres may now be correct, certifying the question to the Florida Supreme Court.

“When a district court believes that a supreme court case has been incorrectly decided or should be reevaluated, the court cannot simply deviate from the supreme court’s decision,” the opinion states. “Rather, the proper procedure is to follow the precedential case and certify a question of great public importance that presents the district court’s concerns.”

The appeals court notes that a crisis, by definition, is not a permanent condition.

A number of questions and rulings in the state since the Mizrahi decision indicate the court may reconsider the position. In fact, in 2014 the court threw out medical malpractice caps for individuals who suffered directly, saying that a malpractice cap “offends the fundamental notion of equal justice under the law.” However, that ruling appears to have only applied, to date, to individuals and not their children. The 2nd Court of Appeals points to that ruling as grounds for re-examining the limits placed on survivors.

The 2014 decision, known as Estate of McCall v. United States, struck down a key provision of tort reform laws passed instituted in Florida in 2003, by then-Governor Jeb Bush, and ratified by a Republican-led state legislature, who said that the caps were necessary to keep down insurance rates and prevent doctors from fleeing the state.

Similar logic has been used to put in place caps in a number of states, but the Florida Supreme Court noted several years ago that more and more state courts are striking those malpractice caps down as anathema to equal protection laws.

About 30 states currently have damage caps of some form, but they have been increasingly challenged in recent years.

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