In its decision dated July 15, 2015, the District Court of Appeal of the State of Florida Fourth District (“Appellate Court”) limited to $100,000 the medical malpractice attorneys fee and costs that the plaintiffs’ Florida medical malpractice lawyers could receive for their highly successful and exhaustive efforts on behalf of a child severely and permanently injured at birth.
In September 1997, a newborn sustained a catastrophic brain injury during his birth as a result of the medical negligence of the employees at a local Florida hospital. The Florida medical malpractice law firm began representing the child and his parents in 1999, pursuant to a standard contingency fee agreement that provided an attorneys’ fee of 40% of any recovery if a lawsuit was filed, plus costs; however, if one of the parties was a governmental agency, the attorneys’ fee would be the amount provided by law.
The five-week Florida medical malpractice trial in 2007 resulted in the medical malpractice jury determining that the hospital’s employees had been negligent and that their negligence had resulted in damages to the plaintiffs. The jury awarded the child over $28.3 million, his mother was awarded $1,340,000, and his father was awarded $1,000,000. However, the trial court found that the defendant hospital was an independent special district of the State of Florida and, pursuant to the sovereign immunity damage limitations in section 768.28(5), Florida Statutes (2007), entered a judgment against the hospital in the amount of $200,000.
The Florida medical malpractice law firm took the extraordinary step to submit a claims bill to the Florida Legislature to obtain more money for the child. After a public campaign in support of the bill, the Florida Legislature passed Claims Bill 2012-249 in 2012, directing the defendant hospital to appropriate $10 million, with an additional $5 million payable in annual installments, “to the Guardianship of Aaron Edwards, to be placed in a special needs trust for the exclusive use and benefit of Aaron Edwards, a minor,” but no money was appropriated for the use and/or benefit of either parent for their damages. The claims bill also included a stipulation stating “[t]he total amount paid for attorney’s fees, lobbying fees, costs, and other similar expenses relating to this claim may not exceed $100,000.”
After the first $10 million installment had been paid into the child’s special needs trust, the various trial, appellate, and lobbyist firms that had worked on the child’s case petitioned the guardianship court to approve a closing account statement transferring $2.5 million to them based on a 25% fee cap provision in section 768.28(8), arguing that the fees and costs limitation in the claims bill was unconstitutional (more than 7,000 hours had been devoted to representing the plaintiffs at trial, on appeal, and during the claims bill process, and more than $500,000 in costs had been incurred).
The guardianship court, relying on precedent from the Appellate Court and the Florida Supreme Court, determined that it lacked judicial authority to grant the requested relief in contravention of the language of the claims bill regarding fees and costs. The Florida medical malpractice law firm appealed, arguing that the language of the claims bill limiting the recovery of attorneys’ fees and costs is an unconstitutional impairment of their contract with the plaintiffs and should be severed from the otherwise valid private relief act for the child. They argued, in the alternative, that the guardianship court had inherent judicial discretion to depart from the limitation imposed by the Florida Legislature and grant reasonable fees and costs up to the 25% limit provided by section 768.28(8), Florida Statutes (2007).
The Appellate Court stated that the Florida Supreme Court, in no uncertain terms, has held that the limitation of attorneys’ fees in a private relief act/claims bill is a constitutionally permissible exercise of legislative authority and does not constitute an impairment of contractual obligations proscribed by article I, section 10 of the Florida Constitution, and the Appellate Court therefore affirmed the lower court’s decision.
A dissenting opinion stated, in part: Because the claim bill’s limitation on attorneys’ fees and costs is an unconstitutional impairment on the Edwards family and firm’s right to contract, I would reverse. I have taken the liberty to also write to remind the readers of this dissent and all Florida lawyers, that contingency fee agreements are directly connected to every citizen’s right to access to our courts. I cite to the Florida Code of Professional Responsibility which contemplates the ethical and moral obligation of “us lawyers” licensed to practice in this state, to always consider the contingency fee agreement as the “poor man’s key to the courthouse.”
Source Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley, P.A. v. State of Florida, No. 4D13-3497.
If you or a loved one were harmed as a result of medical negligence in Florida, you should promptly find a Florida medical malpractice lawyer who may investigate your medical malpractice claim for you and represent you in a medical malpractice case, if appropriate.
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