By: Urban Friesz - April 25th, 2014
This case involves a sad scenario where a young mother died from cardiac arrest due to excessive blood loss following the birth of her son. The US District Court for the Northern District of Florida found the defendant medical practitioners liable and awarded the surviving petitioners $980,462.40 in economic damages and $2,000,000 in noneconomic damages. The district court capped the noneconomic award to $1,000,000, pursuant to Florida statute §766.118. Florida Statute §766.118 provides for limitations on noneconomic damages stemming from medical negligence actions. Full text of this section can be viewed at http://www.flsenate.gov/laws/statutes/2011/766.118. The plaintiffs appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court which certified four questions to the Florida Supreme Court. The Florida Supreme Court answered the first question as rephrased below in the affirmative and declined to answer the other three.
DOES THE STATUTORY CAP ON WRONGFUL DEATH NONECONOMIC DAMAGES, FLA. STAT. § 766.118, VIOLATE THE RIGHT TO EQUAL PROTECTION UNDER ARTICLE I, SECTION 2 OF THE FLORIDA CONSTITUTION?
The court applied the rational basis test and determined that section 766.118 violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Florida Constitution. According to precedent established by the Florida Supreme Court, to pass the rational basis test, the statute being challenged must serve a legitimate governmental purpose and it must be reasonable for the legislature to believe that the challenged classification would promote that purpose. The court concluded that “The statutory cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages fails because it imposes unfair and illogical burdens on injured parties when an act of medical negligence gives rise to multiple claimants. In such circumstances, medical malpractice claimants do not receive the same rights to full compensation because of arbitrarily diminished compensation for legally cognizable claims. Further, the statutory cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages does not bear a rational relationship to the stated purpose that the cap is purported to address, the alleged medical malpractice insurance crisis in Florida.” (Opinion page 9, paragraph 2)
As previously noted, this case involves the death of a patient with three claimants seeking redress under the wrongful death statute. So, what if the patient lives? What if there is only one claimant? How does the McCall opinion impact application of the cap in those instances?
The Court rephrased the first certified question to specify wrongful death economic damages rather than the more general noneconomic damages as originally stated. The Court goes on to state in the statutory provision section of the opinion that at issue is Florida’s statutory cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages in medical negligence actions as articulated in section §766.118. Footnote 2 further states that the legal analysis for personal injury damages and wrongful death damages are not the same and that the analysis on the present case is exclusively related to wrongful death. These statements, collectively, would appear to limit the influence of the opinion to strictly wrongful death actions involving multiple claimants.
We know from reading the opinion that wrongful death remedies are made available through the Florida Wrongful Death Statute §768.16-768.26 and remedies for personal injuries resulting from tortious activity are derived from common law. However, Florida Statute § 766.118(2-6) does not appear to differentiate causes of action for personal injury from wrongful death when determining applicable caps for noneconomic damages. There are four parts Application of the caps under sub parts (a) and (b) stem from causes of action for personal injury or wrongful death. Further, noneconomic damages are not distinguished by causes of action for personal injury or wrongful death. §766.202(8) defines “noneconomic damages” to the extent the claimant is entitled to recover under general law, including the Wrongful Death Act.
It is difficult to predict how future cases will be evaluated by the Court. While the Court makes it clear that the conclusion in McCall applies only to application of noneconomic caps in wrongful death actions, the structure of the statute doesn’t appear to specifically delineate application between wrongful death actions and person injury actions. Further, expansive research provided in the opinion suggesting that if Florida ever had a medical malpractice crisis, it is over, seems to undermine § 766.118 in its entirety under the rational basis test for analyzing the right of equal protection under Article I, Section 2 of the Florida Constitution.
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