In a stunning turn of events, the Florida Supreme Court recently ruled that it was unconstitutional to bar awards for non-economic damages exceeding $1 million in certain medical malpractice lawsuits. The 5 to 2 decision represents the latest turn in a classic “doctors versus lawyers” battle, which has been raging in the state for nearly a decade.
The original controversy began in 2003 when Jeb Bush, the Florida governor at the time, sided with lobbyist working for a doctor’s group called the Florida Medical Association. Gov. Bush signed into law a cap on how much a victim of medical malpractice could receive for things other than “actual” damages. Put more simply, Florida doctors complained that juries were awarding claimants fees based on things like pain and suffering rather than money that they actually lost from permanent disability and not being able to work or operate their businesses.
The majority opinion of the Supreme Court found that limiting those types of awards to $1 million was a violation of a clause within the Florida Constitution intended to preserve equal protection under the law. In fact, one of the justices writing for the majority said that the caps were arbitrary and designed to punish the family members bringing the claim on behalf of their deceased loved one.
Doctors opposed to the landmark ruling suggested that this decision carries with it the potential to have serious negative consequences for all Floridians. These dissenters argue that faced with the prospect of being sued for amounts that could put them out of business, doctors will begin to increasingly practice “defensive medicine”. Things like unnecessary lab work, scans and other screenings are some methods that doctors might employ to shield themselves from lawsuits seeking big awards.
Still, proponents of removing the cap remain certain that the ever present fear of career-ending lawsuits are what compels doctors to take extra care with regards to the treatment of their patients.
Source: spacecoastdaily.com, “Florida Supreme Court Rejects Cap On Malpractice Awards” Jim Saunders, Mar. 14, 2014