Cap on Noneconomic Damages Violates State Equal Protection Clause, According to Florida Supreme Court

Caps on noneconomic damages, enacted in many states under the banner of “tort reform,” have brought uncertain results. While the stated purpose is to prevent litigation from driving up the cost of medical care, damage caps often lead in practice to injustice for victims of medical malpractice. A family in Florida challenged that state’s damage cap statute in federal court on constitutional grounds, after a court cut their judgment in half. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals found no violation of the U.S. Constitution, but it asked the Florida Supreme Court to rule on the state constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. After nearly two years of review, the Florida court ruled that the state’s damage cap violates equal protection, finding that it “bears no rational relationship” to the goal of alleviating a “medical malpractice insurance crisis.”

More than half of all U.S. states, including Maryland, have laws capping noneconomic damages in medical malpractice and other personal injury cases. “Noneconomic damages” refer to intangible injuries like pain and suffering, mental anguish, loss of consortium, and disfigurement. Under Maryland law, the amount of the cap in medical malpractice cases increases by $15,000 every January 1. In 2014, the amount is $740,000, or $925,000 in wrongful death cases with two or more beneficiaries. Florida’s cap, which does not increase year-to-year, is $500,000 for medical injuries and $1 million for wrongful death.

The lawsuit challenging the Florida statute involves a woman who died due to complications after giving birth via caesarean section in February 2006. The birth was performed by U.S. Air Force medical personnel at a private hospital. Her parents, individually and on behalf of her estate and her infant son, sued the U.S. government under the Federal Tort Claims Act. A district judge ruled for the plaintiffs after a bench trial, awarding them over $980,000 in economic damages and $2 million in noneconomic damages. The noneconomic damage award was reduced to $1 million because of the damage cap.

The plaintiffs argued on appeal that the damage cap violates the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as similar provisions in the Florida Constitution. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the verdict and held that the statute did not violate the U.S. Constitution or Florida’s Takings Clause. Estate of McCall v. United States, 642 F.3d 944 (11th Cir. 2011). It found that the application of the state equal protection clause was unsettled, so it certified several questions to the Florida Supreme Court.

Florida’s highest court ruled that the noneconomic damage cap in wrongful death cases violates equal protection under the Florida Constitution. Estate of McCall v. United States, No. SC11-1148, slip op. (Fla., Mar. 13, 2014). A statute that burdens one group over another, as this one does to claimants in medical malpractice and wrongful death lawsuits, must have “a rational and reasonable relationship to a legitimate state objective.” Id. at 9. The court found that the distinction made by the damage cap statute is entirely arbitrary and unrelated to the goal of reducing medical malpractice insurance costs.

The medical malpractice attorneys at Lebowitz & Mzhen represent people in Maryland who have been injured by the negligence of a hospital, doctor, or other medical professional, helping them understand their rights and assert claims for damages. Contact us today online or at (800) 654-1949 for a free and confidential consultation.

More Blog Posts:

Hospital Failed to Provide Adequate Supervision of Patient, According to Wrongful Death Lawsuit Brought by Family, Maryland Accident Law Blog, March 12, 2014
Maryland Medical Malpractice Law Requires Plaintiff to Return to Arbitration Office After Dismissal for Deficient Expert Certificate, According to Court, Maryland Accident Law Blog, February 21, 2014
Data Suggest That Noneconomic Damage Caps Do Not Reduce the Cost of Healthcare, While Maryland Courts Continue to Affirm Their Constitutionality, Maryland Accident Law Blog, January 7, 2014

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