Florida Supreme Court to Evaluate Constitutionality of Damage Cap in Medical Negligence Cases

The Florida Supreme Court has agreed to determine whether a  limit on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases violates the state’s constitution.  The law was passed in 2003 as part of a Republican-led effort to limit the rights of medical malpractice victims.  The damages cap in Florida is $500,000 per claimant and practitioner with an aggregate cap of $1,000,000.

Here are the facts of the case as reported by FJA:

In June 2005, Michelle McCall began receiving prenatal medical care at a United States Air Force clinic as an Air Force dependent. On February 21, 2006, test results revealed that Ms. McCall’s blood pressure was high, requiring labor be induced immediately. Ms. McCall remained at the family practice department instead of being transferred to the OB/GYN department. When it was determined that Ms. McCall would require a cesarean section, an Air Force obstetrician was called. Unfortunately, he was unavailable, so the family practice department opted to wait and deliver the child vaginally instead of calling another doctor.

Following the birth of a healthy boy, family members noticed an enormous loss of blood by Ms. McCall. The medical staff dismissed the family’s concerns, claiming her condition was stable. Following complications delivering the placenta, Ms. McCall’s blood pressure began to drop rapidly and remained dangerously low for an extended period of time. The nurse anesthetist monitoring Ms. McCall’s vital signs failed to notify staff, and Ms. McCall’s doctor failed to inquire of the vital signs.

Subsequently, the assigned doctor requested an “immediate” blood count. One hour and twenty minutes later, a nurse finally attempted to draw blood from Ms. McCall, who was unresponsive. She had gone into shock and cardiac arrest due to severe blood loss. Ms. McCall never regained consciousness and was removed from life support on February 27, 2006.

The McCall family filed suit in federal court. In addition to actual damages, the court found noneconomic damages totaling $2,000,000, but limited them to $1,000,000 due to Florida’s medical malpractice statute. Plaintiffs appealed the case to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the cap on damages was unconstitutional.

The appellate court ruled in favor of the defendant on federal constitutional grounds; however, the three judge panel certified four state constitutional questions to the Florida Supreme Court. The questions to the state high court are whether the medical malpractice statute violates the Florida’s Constitution’s provisions pertaining to equal protection, access to the courts, right to trial by jury, and separation of powers. 

Here is the brief submitted on behalf of the plaintiff.  The ABA supports the effort to overturn the caps.

 I do not believe that an oral argument has been scheduled, although the Florida Supreme Court website is not very user friendly.

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