Fla. Supreme Court tosses medical malpractice caps

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Caps placed on how much money people can receive in cases where a doctor's mistakes led to a patient's death were declared unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday.

The lawsuit limits were part of a law then-Republican Gov. Jeb Bush pushed in 2003 in an effort to lower the cost of malpractice insurance rates and to keep doctors from moving out of state. Supporters at the time called skyrocketing insurance rates a crisis.

In a 5-2 decision, the court said the caps in such cases violate the equal protection guarantee in the state's constitution.

"The cap on non-economic damages serves no purpose other than to arbitrarily punish the most grievously injured or their surviving family members," the court wrote.

Non-economic damages are for pain and suffering, among other things. Economic awards, which have no cap, refer to lost wages or medical costs.

Florida law capped an individual doctor's liability for non-economic damages in most cases to $500,000 and no more than $1 million total if more than one doctor was at fault. The court questioned whether there was ever a crisis that needed to be addressed, but said even if there was, it no longer exists.

The ruling doesn't address caps in malpractice cases where the patient doesn't die.

The case involved a lawsuit filed against the federal government by the parents of Michelle McCall, who died after giving birth in 2006 while being treated by U.S. Air Force doctors. A jury awarded her parents and son $2 million, but a federal court lowered the award to $1 million, citing the state law.

Jacksonville attorney Steve Pajcic said overturning the medical malpractice cap needed to happen.

"If you take the same person and they were killed as a result of medical malpractice in the hospital, the case is worth a limited amount," he said. "But if that person happened to die in a rollover of a Ford Explorer after a tire de-tread, it's worth lots and lots more. That doesn't make sense. It's the same person, same losses for everyone."

Pajcic also said the 2003 law treated people differently. For instance, a stay-at-home mother's case may receive $1 million, and a businessman's $35 million.

"How does that make sense?" he said. "The lives have every much the same value, and the law was unfair to the person who was not working, as was just a mother and a wife."

But Dr. Ruple Galani, who chairs the Duval County Medical Legislative Committee, has concerns.

"Are we going to have physicians that potentially may not come to the state because of that?" he said.

Galani said Florida offers physicians a lot of training programs that entice many of them to stay in state. But he said doctors may change their minds because of this ruling.

"Texas instituted a similar type of law in the same year we did, and they saw surgeon physicians coming to their state," Galani said. "So when you have surge in physicians coming to your state with a good malpractice environment, it allows for more physicians to practice in the state, which opens up access to care."

Galani said the Supreme Court's ruling may cause Florida to lose good physicians to California or the Lone Star State.

"That hurts us as patients because you may not have a physician in your area, especially in the more rural areas of our state," Galani said.

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