Florida Appellate Court Finds Caps on Damages Unconstitutional
A panel of judges of Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal in Lakeland, Florida, found that limits on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases are unconstitutional. These limits, also referred to as caps, on damages have long been a controversial legal topic in Florida and the rest of the United States. The Florida Legislature and then-Governor Jeb Bush implemented these caps on damages back in 2003 in response to skyrocketing malpractice insurance costs for doctors. The caps were also likely implemented as a result of several high-profile cases in the 1990s that altered the national public opinion about non-economic damages and spurred tort reform by state legislatures across the country.
The divisive ruling by the Second District Court of Appeal was on a Charlotte County case involving a mother who alleged that the negligent care of a hospital and doctor when she was pregnant led to her daughter being born with severe neurological injuries. According to court documents, Iala Suarez, the Plaintiff, went to OBGYN Michael Coffey for routine care and treatment during her pregnancy in 2010. At twenty-four weeks, Suarez was noted as having high blood pressure and high protein in her urine. These symptoms are common of preeclampsia, a serious pregnancy condition that increases the risk of poor outcomes for the mother and baby.
Suarez was then referred to Peace River Regional Medical Center, which does not deliver babies less than 33 weeks of gestation, for blood pressure evaluation and a twenty-four hour urine test, the test to diagnose a mother with preeclampsia. After discharging Suarez, the test results came back positive for early term, severe preeclampsia. Suarez was never transferred to a high-level care hospital for monitoring and treatment and was never administered antenatal corticosteroids, which are required for women at risk of preterm birth from 24-34 weeks of gestation. As a result, Suarez’s daughter was born at 26 weeks with severe brain damage and cerebral palsy, requiring a lifetime of full-time nursing care.
The jury awarded Suarez and her daughter $23 million in compensatory damages and $5.25 million in non-economic damages. The Defendants then filed a motion to reduce the awards pursuant to section 766.118(3), Florida Statutes, claiming that their liability for non-economic damages should have been limited to $1.5 million. Suarez responded that the statutory cap on non-economic damages is unconstitutional, an argument that has been made and failed many times in courtrooms across the country. The trial court denied the Defendants’ motion and declined to apply the damages cap.
The Second District Court of Appeal decided the case as the Florida Supreme Court considers this very issue in another case out of the Fourth District Court of Appeal. The 4th DCA found that the statutory limits on non-economic damages in medical malpractice claims are unconstitutional. In its opinion, written by Judge Robert Morris and joined by judges Patricia Kelly and Nelly Khouzam, the 2nd DCA actually cited to the 4th DCA case. We shall see how long the 2nd DCA’s ruling holds up, as the Florida Supreme Court is expected to make a ruling on this issue in the coming months.