Florida High Court Strikes Down Statutory Caps On Medical Malpractice Noneconomic Damages In Wrongful Death Cases

On March 13, 2014, the Florida Supreme Court issued a ground-breaking decision on an issue that has plagued plaintiffs’ lawyers for years – statutory caps on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases. Estate of McCall v. United States, 2014 Fla. LEXIS 933 (Fla. Mar. 13, 2014) The issue came to pass in an action brought on behalf of the Estate of Michelle Evette McCall against the United States of America. 1 Exp. Wit. 198716

Michelle McCall was a 20-year-old pregnant Air Force dependent who was admitted to Fort Walton Beach Medical Center on Feb. 21, 2006, with severe preeclampsia. Labor was induced and doctors allowed McCall to deliver her child, W.W., vaginally at 1:25 a.m. on Feb. 23, 2006. McCall lost a significant amount of blood and did not deliver the placenta after delivery. Steps were taken to stop the blood loss, but McCall went into shock and cardiac arrest and never regained consciousness. On Nov. 26, 2007, McCall's estate, through her parents Edward M. McCall, II, and Margarita F. McCall and W.W.'s father Jason Walley, filed a wrongful death and medical malpractice complaint against the United States in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida. The action proceeded to a bench trial, where the court determined that the petitioners’ economic damages, or financial losses, amounted to $980,462.40. The district court also concluded that the petitioners’ noneconomic damages, or nonfinancial losses, totaled $2 million, including $500,000 for Ms. McCall’s son and $750,000 for each of her parents. However, the district court limited the petitioners’ recovery of wrongful death noneconomic damages to $1 million based upon section 766.118(2), Florida Statutes (2005), Fla. Stat. § 766.118, Florida’s statutory cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages based on medical malpractice claims.

The action was appealed to the  United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit,
Estate of McCall v. United States, 642 F.3d 944 (11th Cir. Fla. 2011) which upheld the district court’s application of the statutory cap. However, the appellate court determined that there was no controlling precedent and certified four questions of Florida law for the Florida Supreme Court: (1) DOES THE STATUTORY CAP ON NONECONOMIC DAMAGES, FLA. STAT. § 766.118, VIOLATE THE RIGHT TO EQUAL PROTECTION UNDER ARTICLE I, SECTION 2 OF THE FLORIDA CONSTITUTION? (2) DOES THE STATUTORY CAP ON NONECONOMIC DAMAGES, FLA. STAT. § 766.118, VIOLATE THE RIGHT OF ACCESS TO THE COURTS UNDER ARTICLE I, SECTION 21 OF THE FLORIDA CONSTITUTION? (3) DOES THE STATUTORY CAP ON NONECONOMIC DAMAGES, FLA. STAT. § 766.118, VIOLATE THE RIGHT TO TRIAL BY JURY UNDER ARTICLE I, SECTION 22 OF THE FLORIDA CONSTITUTION? (4) DOES THE STATUTORY CAP ON NONECONOMIC DAMAGES, FLA. STAT. § 766.118, VIOLATE THE SEPARATION OF POWERS GUARANTEED BY ARTICLE II, SECTION 3 AND ARTICLE V, SECTION 1 OF THE FLORIDA CONSTITUTION?

The Supreme Court rephrased the first question, due to the nature of the underlying action, to read: “DOES THE STATUTORY CAP ON WRONGFUL DEATH NONECONOMIC DAMAGES, FLA. STAT. § 766.118, VIOLATE THE RIGHT TO EQUAL PROTECTION UNDER ARTICLE I, SECTION 2 OF THE FLORIDA  CONSTITUTION?” The Court answered the question in the affirmative, holding that the cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages provided in section 766.118, Florida Statutes, Id., violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Florida Constitution. The court wrote:

 We conclude that section 766.118 violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Florida Constitution under the rational basis test. The statutory cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages fails because it imposes unfair and illogical burdens on injured parties when an act of medical negligence gives rise to multiple claimants. In such circumstances, medical malpractice claimants do not receive the same rights to full compensation because of arbitrarily diminished compensation for legally cognizable claims. Further, the statutory cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages does not bear a rational relationship to the stated purpose that the cap is purported to address, the alleged medical malpractice insurance crisis in Florida.

The court further noted that “the conclusions reached by the Florida Legislature as to the existence of a medical malpractice crisis are not fully supported by available data.” The “insurance crisis” was what legislators had claimed was the public necessity requiring the statutory caps.

The court found it unnecessary to answer the remaining certified questions because Florida’s Wrongful Death Act was of statutory origin, and the present case was brought under the Federal Tort Claims Act and its procedures. The court also noted that application of its judgment was limited to wrongful death claims as opposed to personal injury damage claims in general. Regardless, the decision is a tremendous win for medical malpractice and plaintiff’s lawyers generally in Florida. Opponents say that this will cause insurance premiums to skyrocket, causing many physicians to forego insurance. This case has particular significance as Florida legislators prepare to vote on a health care law concerning Floridians’ right to sue physicians. The new law would allow physicians to have their patients sign waivers requiring them to bring any potential malpractice claims to arbitration rather than to the courts. Further, the Florida Supreme Court’s decision will surely impact the decisions of other state’s high courts, which will be addressing similar issues as “tort reform” is being challenged nationwide.

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