Last month, the Florida Supreme Court looked back more than 10 years to strike down a key component of the 2003 medical malpractice law. It was a 5-2 ruling written by Justice R. Fred Lewis. While the case itself surrounds a major controversial issue in the legal community, the Justice’s critique of the legislative body that passed the law is also drawing attention.
Back in 2003, the law was passed as a culmination of a debate that lasted months. Then Governor Jeb Bush took the side of doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies who complained that medical malpractice costs in Florida were growing out of control, sending good doctors to other states or away from the type of high-risk work that led to the suits. The state government eventually settled on caps that would keep pain and suffering payments at $500,000 or $1 million, depending upon a variety of circumstances.
Three years later, a 20-year-old Florida woman named Michelle McCall bled to death after undergoing a caesarian section during childbirth. Her family sued the federal government (she was treated by U.S. Air Force medical staff) and was awarded $2 million in non-economic damages. However, the medical malpractice law lowered the award to $1 million. McCall’s family fought the ruling in appeals court.
After a lengthy legal battle, and seven years after McCall’s tragic death, Justice Lewis and the Florida Supreme Court issued last month’s ruling, determining the original law to be unconstitutional for the way in it discriminates based on the amount of damage and loss incurred by a claimant. It removed the cap on “non-economic” damages resulting from wrongful deaths. While hundreds of pending cases will be affected, those already decided will remain closed.
In his ruling, Justice Lewis accused the Florida Legislature of acting irrationally and fabricating a medical malpractice crisis to pass the law. He even went as far as to give statistics to demonstrate that the number of physicians in Florida was actually growing as the law was being debated. While some of Lewis’ fellow concurring judges disagreed with this blunt critique of the Legislature, they shared his view that the law was not “rationally related to the legitimate state interest of decreasing medical malpractice insurance rates and increasing the affordability and availability of health care in Florida.”
Tort reform advocates are quick to point out that the ruling is somewhat narrow in the way it applies only to wrongful death claims, believing that the rest of the law could remain intact. The legal team at Stok Kon & Braverman will continue to keep an eye on new developments in this year’s legislative session.