Insurance companies have pressured a number of states to impose limits on “non-economic” damages a plaintiff may recover in a medical malpractice or wrongful death lawsuit. Non-economic damages include losses to individuals, such as pain and suffering, mental anguish and loss of one’s ability to enjoy life. The insurance industry claims such damage awards lead to higher malpractice insurance premiums for doctors and can ultimately drive practitioners out of the marketplace.
But, limits on non-economic damages are ultimately unfair to victims of medical malpractice. A number of state courts have recognized this and struck down legislative efforts to cap damages. For example, in 2010 the Georgia Supreme Court held limits on non-economic damages violated a victim’s right to trial by jury, as the caps indiscriminately overruled a jury’s findings of fact. And on March 13 of this year, the Florida Supreme Court declared that a state’s limits on non-economic damages violated the equal protection provision of the Florida Constitution.
McCall v. United States
The Florida case began in 2005 when a woman under the care of a United States Air Force doctor died due to complications from childbirth. The woman’s estate, her parents and the father of her child sued the United States Government under the Federal Tort Claims Act. This law provides that the federal government may be sued in state court due to the official negligence of one of its employees.
A federal judge in Florida found that the woman died due to medical malpractice. The court awarded economic damages of just over $980,000 and non-economic damages of $2 million–$500,000 for the woman’s son and $750,000 for each of her parents.
Unfortunately, the court then had to reduce the award in order to comply with Florida’s statutory cap on non-economic damages. Adopted by the Florida legislature in 2003, this cap limits total non-economic damages for all plaintiffs to just $1 million. The victim’s family appealed the decision to limit damages to the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. In a 2011 decision, that court said Florida’s cap did not violate the United States Constitution. However, the court also asked the Florida Supreme Court to determine whether the cap might violate the state’s constitution.
In a 5-2 decision, the Florida Supreme Court said that it did. Specifically, the majority held the cap violated the constitutional guarantee that all persons “are equal before the law.” The Court said, “The statutory cap on wrongful death [non-economic] damages fails because it imposes unfair and illogical burdens on injured parties when an act of medical negligence gives rise to multiple claimants.” In other words, the cap treats cases with multiple plaintiffs differently than single plaintiffs. For example, had the victim’s child in this case been the only plaintiff, he would have received the full $500,000 award for non-economic damages. But, since he was part of a group of plaintiffs that received a total award over the cap, his award was reduced in proportion to that cap. Even if the cap was not discriminatory, the Florida Supreme Court explained, it would still be unconstitutional as the limits still have “no rational relationship to a legitimate state objective.”
The Court rejected the Florida Legislature’s argument that caps on non-economic damages are necessary to address a “medical malpractice insurance crisis of unprecedented magnitude.” In fact, the Court observed, this assertion was “dubious and questionable at the very best.” And even if such a crisis did exist, there was little reason to believe capping non-economic damages would lead to lower malpractice insurance premiums for doctors. Insurance companies, the Court said, were far more likely to pad their own profits than pass along savings in the form of lower prices.