TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In a case involving a boy severely injured at birth, a split Florida Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that lawmakers' decision to impose a $100,000 cap on attorneys' fees --- a fraction of the costs incurred in a decade-long legal fight --- was unconstitutional.
A 4-3 majority of the court ruled in favor of the firm Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley, P.A., which spent more 13 years representing Aaron Edwards and his parents in a legal fight against Southwest Florida's Lee Memorial Health System, eventually winning a nearly $31 million jury verdict.
For several years, the dispute played out publicly in the halls of the Capitol because state law capped payments by public entities like the hospital --- which hired influential lobbyists --- at $200,000 without passage of a legislative "claim" bill.
In 2012, lawmakers approved a claim bill that directed Lee Memorial to pay $15 million to Edwards' family but said only $100,000 could go to the Searcy Denney firm. When the hospital system made an initial $10 million payment, Searcy Denney, with the support of the family, said it was entitled to $2.5 million, or 25 percent, for fees and costs, according to Tuesday's opinion.
That led to the constitutional fight, with the 4th District Court of Appeal ruling that the $100,000 fee limit imposed by lawmakers was valid. The Supreme Court decision overturned that ruling.
The Legislature has "complete discretion in its decision whether to grant a claims bill," justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince wrote in an opinion joined by Senior Justice James E.C. Perry.
But the bill "may not unconstitutionally impair the preexisting contract between the claimant and the law firm" for attorney's fees, the majority decided.
Thursday's opinion may have far-reaching implications on future claim bills in which victims of negligence or wrongdoing by government agencies seek compensation.
"If the decision was not made this way, nobody would have representation," Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan said in a telephone interview Tuesday evening. "The business we're in is not free. We lose money on cases. We spend money on cases. If a dry cleaner didn't get paid to clean suits, would you dry suits? No. It's as simple as that."
Justices in the majority ruled they could "discern no legitimate public purpose or justification to disapprove" the 25 percent fee that would have been authorized under other circumstances for the claim-bill lawyers.
"The legislative fee limitation in contravention of the contract and the statute chills, and effectively impairs, the rights of the parties to obtain effective counsel to seek redress for them in both the courts and from the Legislature," the majority wrote.
But justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston disagreed in separate dissents.
"The Florida law limiting the amount of attorneys' fees does not unconstitutionally impair a pre-existing contract that expressly contemplates and accepts that Florida law may limit the amount of attorney's fees," Polston wrote in a dissent joined by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga.
The effect of the ruling is to take $2.5 million from the guardianship of Aaron Edwards for attorneys' fees, "a result that was explicitly rejected by the Legislature with its enactment of the claims bill," Polston wrote.