In a 4-3 decision, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday agreed with a lower court and said limiting certain damages in personal-injury medical malpractice lawsuits isÂ unconstitutional.
The ruling split along the usual lines, with the progressive-leaning justices concurring, and the conservativesâ€”now including new Justice C. Alan Lawsonâ€”in dissent.
The Legislature established $500,000 limits, or caps, on what are called â€śnonÂ-economicâ€ť damages for such cases.
The Supreme Court previously ruled they donâ€™t apply in medical malpractice cases involving wrongful death. The 4th District Court of Appeal had extended that decision to personal injury cases.
That court reinstated a $4.7 million damage award to Susan Kalitan, who sued North Broward Hospital District and others over complications from surgery, namely that her esophagus was punctured during the administering of anesthesia.
The majority of Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy A. Quince held that â€ścaps in (state law) violate equal protectionâ€ť in that some people are injured worse than others.Â
â€śThe arbitrary reduction of compensation without regard to the severity of the injury does not bear a rational relationship to the Legislatureâ€™s stated interest in addressing the medical malpractice crisis,â€ť the opinion said.
â€śWe further conclude â€¦ there is no evidence of a continuing medical malpractice insurance crisis justifying the arbitrary and invidious discrimination between medical malpractice victims,â€ť it added.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, called a Special Session in 2003 to overhaul the law governing medical malpractice lawsuits. Doctors said big-money jury awards were driving up their insurance premiums; some even stopped practicing in Florida.
The state eventually limited noneconomic damages, sometimes referred to as â€śloss of the enjoyment of life,â€ť to $500,000 per plaintiff and no more than $1 million from all defendants in a single lawsuit.
In dissent, Justices Lawson, Charles Canady and Ricky Polston countered that the limit â€śeasily passes constitutional muster.â€ť
Moreover, â€śit is the Legislatureâ€™s task to decide whether a medical malpractice crisis exists, whether a medical malpractice crisis has abated, and whether the Florida Statutes should be amended accordingly,â€ť the dissent said.
â€śFor a majority of this Court to decide that a crisis no longer exists, if it ever existed, so it can essentially change a statute and policy it dislikes, improperly interjects the judiciary into a legislative function.â€ť
Paul Jess, interim director of the Florida Justice Association, welcomed the ruling in a written statement.
â€śTodayâ€™s ruling by the Florida Supreme Court that state statutes establishing caps on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice personal injury cases are unconstitutional is a resounding victory for patients,” he said. “This is a step forward that will promote safer health care in Florida.â€ť
ButÂ David J. Becker, M.D., president of the Florida Medical Association, said his group “is disappointed with the Court’s ruling, but given past decisions, it was not unexpected.â€ť
The FMA “will continue to do all it can to ensure that the costs of the medical liability system do not unfairly impact physicians ability to practice medicine,” he added.