In its opinion filed on July 1, 2015, the District Court of Appeal of the State of Florida Fourth District (“Appellate Court”) held that the caps on noneconomic damage awards in personal injury medical malpractice cases are unconstitutional, extending a prior Florida Supreme Court case that held that caps on noneconomic damages in wrongful death cases were unconstitutional (“the cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages in section 766.118, Florida Statutes, violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Florida Constitution”).
The Underlying Facts
The plaintiff went to the defendant hospital in 2007 for outpatient surgery to treat carpal tunnel syndrome in her wrist that required general anesthesia. During intubation, one of the tubes perforated the plaintiff’s esophagus. When the plaintiff awoke in recovery, she complained of excruciating pain in her chest and back. The anesthesiologist was unaware that the plaintiff’s esophagus had been perforated and ordered medication for the chest pain, concluding that there was no issue with the plaintiff’s heart. The plaintiff was discharged from the hospital later that afternoon.
The plaintiff’s neighbor checked on her the following day and found the plaintiff unresponsive. The neighbor brought the plaintiff to the emergency room of a nearby hospital, where her perforated esophagus was diagnosed, followed by life-saving surgery to repair her esophagus. Plaintiff was maintained in a drug-induced coma in the intensive care unit for several weeks. The plaintiff required additional surgeries and had intensive therapy in order to begin eating again and regain mobility. The plaintiff continued to suffer from pain throughout the upper half of her body and from serious mental disorders as a result of the traumatic incident and the loss of independence because of her body’s physical limitations following the incident.
The plaintiff subsequently filed a Florida medical malpractice lawsuit that resulted in a jury verdict in her favor in the amount of $4,718,011, which included noneconomic damages in the amount of $2 million for past pain and suffering and $2 million for future pain and suffering. The trial judge reduced the noneconomic damages awards by the caps provided in section 766.118, Florida Statutes (2011), after applying the increased cap for the finding of catastrophic injury, thereby reducing the noneconomic damages awarded by the jury from $4 million to close to $2 million. The noneconomic damages awards were further reduced by about $1.3 million because the defendant hospital’s share of liability was capped at $100,000 by virtue of the hospital’s status as a sovereign entity. § 768.28, Fla. Stat. (2007). An appeal followed.
The Appellate Court noted that the Florida Constitution states, “All natural persons, female and male alike, are equal before the law . . . .” Art. I, § 2, Fla. Const. Accordingly, “everyone is entitled to stand before the law on equal terms with, to enjoy the same rights as belong to, and to bear the same burden as are imposed upon others in a like situation.” The Appellate Court stated because the damage caps do not implicate either a suspect class or fundamental right, the rational basis test applies to discern the caps’ constitutionality: to maintain constitutionality under the rational basis test, “a statute must bear a rational and reasonable relationship to a legitimate state objective, and it cannot be arbitrary or capriciously imposed.”
The Appellate Court referenced the prior Florida Supreme Court decision that held that caps on noneconomic damages in wrongful death cases were unconstitutional in holding that the section 766.118 caps are unconstitutional not only in wrongful death actions, but also in personal injury suits as they violate equal protection. It makes no difference that the caps apply horizontally to multiple claimants in a wrongful death case or vertically to a single claimant in a personal injury case who suffers noneconomic damages in excess of the caps. Whereas the caps on noneconomic damages in section 766.118 fully compensate those individuals with noneconomic damages in an amount that falls below the caps, injured parties with noneconomic damages in excess of the caps are not fully compensated.
Source North Broward Hospital District, et al., v. Susan Kalitan, Nos. 4D11-4806, 4D11-4833, and 4D11-4834.
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