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Florida Malpractice Damage Caps Are Unconstitutional

The Florida supreme court agreed with AARP, advocates for access to the courts, and labor unions, that a Florida state law regarding medical malpractice damages cap violates that state’s constitutional protections guaranteeing a right of redress.

Background

Michelle McCall’s estate sued under the federal Tort Claims Act, claiming that her death was caused by medical malpractice. A court agreed and awarded the estate $2 million in economic (i.e., lost wages and actual costs) and non-economic (i.e., pain and suffering) damages. An appeals court cut that award in half, invoking limitations in Florida statutes regarding noneconomic damages.  In 2003 Florida had enacted a law imposing a cap on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice claims.

McCall’s estate appealed, arguing that the statutory cap violated the federal and state constitutions. While finding the law did not violate the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th circuit asked the Florida supreme court to determine whether the cap violated the Florida constitution.

AARP’s friend-of-the-court brief in support of McCall’s estate argued that the law runs afoul of the express access to court guaranteed under the Florida constitution. The brief argues that Florida’s damage cap does not meet the requirements for laws limiting constitutional rights. Specifically, the brief argued, the law was not based on sufficient factual evidence to justify such a draconian limitation and does not treat people equally under the law by penalizing lower earners and retirees for whom a recovery of strictly economic damages would be disproportionally low.

In a lengthy, detailed, and carefully reasoned ruling, the Florida supreme court — the state’s highest court — ruled that “policy that relies upon discrimination against Florida families is not rational or reasonable when it attempts to utilize aggregate caps to create unreasonable classifications,” and struck down the law.

What’s at Stake

Caps on noneconomic damages penalize low income workers, limited income retirees, and others whose economic damages would be inadequate to reflect the actual harm caused by medical malpractice. Moreover, by limiting those damages, the law removes a powerful incentive for medical providers to comply with the highest standard of care.

As AARP’s brief noted, “In a variety of ways, a cap on damages, which penalizes the recovery of those who are not wealthy, the elderly, children, and those who are hurt the most, and which targets the element of damages most important to those who are not wealthy” violates constitutional principles guaranteeing access to justice by all.

Case Status

McCall v. U.S. was decided by the Florida Supreme Court and returned to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.