The Supreme Court of Florida held in a 4-to-3 decision filed on June 8, 2017 that the caps on personal injury noneconomic damages in medical negligence actions provided in section 766.118 violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Florida Constitution.
Section 766.118, Florida Statutes (2011)
Section 766.118(2) provides that in a cause of action for personal injury arising from the medical negligence of practitioners, the noneconomic damages award shall not exceed $500,000 per claimant; however, if the negligence resulted in a permanent vegetative state or death, or if the negligence caused a catastrophic injury and a manifest injustice would occur unless increased damages are awarded, then damages may be awarded in an amount up to $1 million.
Section 766.118(3) similarly limits damages to $750,000 and $1.5 million, respectively, when the injury results from the negligence of nonpractitioners.
The Underlying Case
In the case it was deciding, the Florida medical malpractice jury determined that the plaintiff suffered catastrophic injury in the form of a severe brain or closed-head injury evidenced by a severe episodic neurological disorder, and awarded the plaintiff $4,718,011 in total damages. The noneconomic damage awards were $2 million for past pain and suffering and $2 million for future pain and suffering.
The trial court limited the noneconomic damage awards by the caps provided in section 766.118, after applying the increased cap for the finding of catastrophic injury, because the trial court found that competent substantial evidence existed in the record to support a finding of catastrophic injury under the statutory definition as determined by the jury. Therefore, the noneconomic damages award of $4 million was reduced by close to $2 million by the limitation on noneconomic damages for negligence of practitioners under section 766.118(2) and limitation on noneconomic damages for negligence of nonpractitioner defendants under section 766.118(3).
The noneconomic damages award was 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).
The Supreme Court of Florida discussed its prior decision in a 2014 case in which it held that the cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages provided in section 766.118 violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Florida Constitution. Art. I, § 2, Fla. Const. Estate of McCall v. United States, 134 So. 3d 894 (Fla. 2014).
The Florida Constitution declares that “[a]ll natural persons, female and male alike, are equal before the law.” Art. I, § 2, Fla. Const. The constitutional right of equal protection of the laws means that 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.
Unless a suspect class or fundamental right protected by the Florida Constitution is implicated by the challenged provision, the rational basis test will apply to evaluate an equal protection challenge. To satisfy 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 Supreme Court of Florida stated that the plaintiff in the case it was deciding is not a member of a suspect class and therefore the rational basis test applies.
The Supreme Court of Florida stated, “we … hold that the caps in section 766.118 violate equal protection under the rational basis test because the arbitrary reduction of compensation without regard to the severity of the injury does not bear a rational relationship to the Legislature’s stated interest in addressing the medical malpractice crisis … we conclude that the statutory caps in section 766.118 unreasonably and arbitrarily limit recovery of those most grievously injured by medical negligence … we hold that the arbitrary caps on personal injury noneconomic damages in sections 766.118(2) and (3) bear no rational relationship to a legitimate government interest.”
The Supreme Court of Florida concluded: “the caps on noneconomic damages in sections 766.118(2) and (3) arbitrarily reduce damage awards for plaintiffs who suffer the most drastic injuries. We further conclude that because there is no evidence of a continuing medical malpractice insurance crisis justifying the arbitrary and invidious discrimination between medical malpractice victims, there is no rational relationship between the personal injury noneconomic damage caps in section 766.118 and alleviating this purported crisis. Therefore, we hold that the caps on personal injury noneconomic damages provided in section 766.118 violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Florida Constitution.”
Source North Broward Hospital District v. Kalitan, No. SC15-1858
If you suffered serious harm due to medical negligence in Florida or in another U.S. state, you should promptly find a medical malpractice lawyer in Florida, or a medical malpractice lawyer in your state, who may investigate your medical malpractice claim for you and represent you in a medical malpractice case, if appropriate.
Visit our website or call us toll-free in the United States at 800-295-3959 to find medical malpractice attorneys in your state who may assist you.
Turn to us when you don’t know where to turn.