Decision exposes defects in 2003 “Medical Malpractice reform.”
The Florida Supreme Court has struck down arbitrary caps imposed on the recovery by surviving relatives of patients killed by medical negligence. The case (Estate of McCall v. United States, 2014 Fla. LEXIS 933 (Fla. Mar. 13, 2014)) involved the preventable death of a 20-year-old woman who bled to death shortly after giving birth. The appeal, certified to the Florida Supreme Court by a federal appellate court, focused on the effect of the caps on the woman’s survivors, including the baby boy who will never know his mother.
The court’s ruling did not make new law; it relied on long-standing precedent.1 In declaring the caps violated the right of everyone “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 court also exposed the misconceptions underlying the 2003 statutory scheme. The centerpiece of the legislative agenda advanced by the Florida Medical Association was to punish the most seriously injured.
In analyzing the report of the Governor’s Select Task Force on Healthcare Professional Liability Insurance, the court revealed that there was no factual support for the theory that physicians were being forced: (1) to practice without malpractice insurance; (2) to leave the state; (3) to not perform high-risk procedures; or, (4) to retire early from the practice of medicine. In a sharp rebuke of the scare tactics employed by tort reform cap advocates, the Supreme Court cited proof that at the time of the legislation the number of physicians in the state was actually increasing. Additionally, the court observed that during the period of the alleged crisis, applications to Florida medical schools were significantly higher, no emergency rooms had closed because of medical malpractice, and, no one had been denied medical care or directed to another health care provider because of any alleged medical malpractice crisis.
The court rejected the speculation that runaway juries were the cause of increased medical malpractice insurance premiums, since court records show that the vast majority of payments for medical malpractice claims involved cases that were never presented to a jury.2
Of note among the many civil justice advocates in McCall was Robert Peck of the Center for Constitutional Litigation (CCL). CCL has been deeply, consistently and successfully at the center of the nationwide fight to protect the people’s rights of access to the courts, redress for injury and trial by jury from special interest legislation masquerading as so-called “tort reform.” And CCL’s work for people and their rights has been steadily and significantly supported by the American Association for Justice, including in the McCall case.
Finally, in analyzing the effect of the challenged law between 2003 and 2010, the court discovered that four medical malpractice insurance companies in the state saw their net income increase more than 4,300 percent. This brought a suggestion from the justices that the medical malpractice insurers should have passed the savings on to Florida physicians in the form of reduced medical malpractice insurance premiums. In further evaluating the effect of the caps on today’s families, the court ruled
. . . the cap on noneconomic damages serves no purpose other than to arbitrarily punish the most grievously injured or their surviving family members. Moreover, it has never been demonstrated that there was a proper predicate for imposing the burden of supporting the Florida legislative scheme upon the shoulders of the persons and families who have been most severely injured and died as a result of medical negligence.
1 St. Mary’s Hospital, Inc. v. Phillipe, 769 So.2d 961 (Fla. 2000)
2 Statistics from the State Insurance Commissioner’s Office reveal that ten percent of all medical malpractice payments exceeding $1 million were from settlements arrived at without a lawsuit.