On March 13, the Florida Supreme Court overturned the centerpiece of the 2003 medical malpractice overhaul law. In the opinion the court strongly criticized the Florida Legislature and even went so far as to accuse them of creating an “alleged medical malpractice crisis.”
The justices ruled in the 5-2 opinion that Florida’s controversial 2003 medical malpractice reform violated survivors’ equal protection rights, because hard caps on noneconomic damages were limited to no more than $1 million in the event of a death or permanent vegetative state — regardless of the number of practitioners or survivors.
The 2003 law limited individual family members to damages not determined by the actual pain and suffering they endured but rather by how many other relatives were also entitled to part of the $1 million in noneconomic damages. When multiple parties were found at fault the burden was even further lessened – regardless of severity – because there were more parties to contribute toward the damage award.
The Court struck down the law on equal protection grounds, with Justice Fred R. Lewis writing for the majority, “We hold that to reduce damages in this fashion is not only arbitrary, but irrational, and we conclude that it ‘offends the fundamental notion of equal justice under the law.’ ”
Former Governor Jeb Bush had pushed for the damage caps in 2003 at the behest of insurance companies, hospitals, and doctors. In spite of being warned by legislative staffers that the bill might implicate equal protection concerns under the Florida Constitution. Bush was adamant and argued then that the reforms were needed to curb the explosion of medical malpractice costs.
The Court was specific in refuting these claims and wrote, “…the finding by the Legislature and the Task Force that Florida was in the midst of a bona fide medical malpractice crisis, threatening the access of Floridians to health care, is dubious and questionable at the very best.”
The Court then went even further and noted that between 2003 and 2010 there were four medical malpractice insurance companies with an increase in their net income of more than 4300 percent. “The insurance industry should pass savings onto Florida physicians in the form of reduced malpractice insurance premiums,” the court wrote regarding their inflated incomes.
The irony was that in spite of the damage caps designed to control malpractice insurance, premiums have continued to rise dramatically. This was not lost on Judge Lewis, who concluded that, “it’s not even clear doctors got rate relief due to the law’s caveats that allowed insurance companies to keep raising rates.”
According to the Florida Justice Association there are currently more than 700 medical malpractice cases pending statewide. This decision by the Florida Supreme Court will ensure that the survivors of these victims, and those of future victims of medical malpractice will be given damages commensurate with their actual pain and suffering, and not just a fixed amount based on the number of survivors.