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Florida Medical Malpractice Lawsuit Damage Cap Struck Down by State Supreme Court

The Florida Supreme Court has struck down a state cap on non-economic damages that may be awarded in medical malpractice lawsuits, indicating that the arbitrary limit on the amount a jury can award plaintiffs is unconstitutional and violates equal protection laws. 

The Florida medical malpractice lawsuit damage caps were established in 2003, by state Republicans who claimed that there was a “malpractice crisis” in the state, which was driving up insurance premiums. The law took into account a variety of factors, such as the number of plaintiffs involved and the defendants, setting maximum amounts plaintiffs could awarded, regardless of the severity of their injuries or the actions of the defendant.

Last Thursday, in a 4-3 ruling, the Florida Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s determination that the law was unconstitutional, saying the cap violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Florida Constitution. The majority also said that there was “no evidence of a continuing medical malpractice insurance crisis justifying the arbitrary and invidious discrimination between medical malpractice victims,” and said even if there was, there was no link between caps on non-economic damages and fixing such a problem.

The minority said the ruling was outside of the state’s authority, and that it should not second-guess the legislature’s decision that there was a crisis and how to handle it.

This is the second time the court has rejected Florida malpractice caps in that state. In 2014, the Florida Supreme Court struck other provisions of caps on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases, indicating that their existence offends the concept of justice.

The tort reform laws were passed 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 place damage caps in a number of states, but the Florida Supreme Court noted that more and more state courts are striking those malpractice caps down as anathema to equal protection laws, citing a similar ruling recently in Illinois that led to the downfall of medical malpractice caps in that state as well.

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

State Supreme Courts in Illinois, Missouri and Georgia have thrown out similar damages caps in recent years, saying that the imposition of caps by the state legislatures violated the plaintiffs’ rights to a trial by jury, since the cap overrode the jury’s judgment on what the compensation for those cases should be.

California was the first state to enact a damage cap in 1975, specifically limiting the non-economic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of 2005 ten states capped recoveries specifically on medical malpractice cases and another 22 have caps that are not limited to medical malpractice. About a dozen states also have caps on punitive damages.

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