A small measure of justice was restored this week when the Florida Supreme Court found unconstitutional the centerpiece of a decade-old state law, saying it discriminates against the surviving relatives of medical malpractice victims based solely on how many there are. The ruling comes too late for families who already have been shortchanged. But it sends a clear message to the Florida Legislature that it cannot allow powerful political forces to trump fundamental fairness for individuals.
In a 5-2 opinion, the justices ruled Thursday that Florida's controversial 2003 medical malpractice reform violated survivors' equal protection rights because hard caps on noneconomic damages were limited to no more than $1 million in the event of a death or permanent vegetative state — regardless of the number of practitioners or survivors.
The practical effect of the law: Individual family members' share of damages was limited not by the actual pain and suffering they endured, but by how many other relatives were also entitled to part of the $1 million in noneconomic damages. What's more, when multiple parties were found at fault, their burden was lessened regardless of the severity of their malpractice simply because there were more parties to contribute toward the $1 million in damages. "We hold that to reduce damages in this fashion is not only arbitrary, but irrational, and we conclude that it 'offends the fundamental notion of equal justice under the law,' " Justice R. Fred Lewis wrote in the majority opinion.
The ruling is expected to also impact a $500,000 cap on noneconomic damages for lesser injuries. The Florida Justice Association estimates there are more than 700 medical malpractice suits pending statewide.
The bigger outrage for survivors whose noneconomic damages were capped in the last decade is that lawmakers and then-Gov. Jeb Bush were repeatedly warned this could happen. In several 2003 bill analyses written over multiple legislative sessions, the legislative staff warned that the bill "may implicate equal protection concerns under the Florida Constitution."
But constitutional concerns rarely get in the way when special interest legislation is at stake. Hospitals were seeking to limit their liability and doctors wanted lower insurance premiums. On the other side was the Trial Bar, long a nemesis of the Republican-controlled Legislature, which argued that caps would not hold doctors or their insurance companies to account. In the end, Lewis wrote, it's not even clear doctors got rate relief due to the law's caveats that allowed insurance companies to keep raising rates.
At least now survivors of the victims of medical malpractice have a fairer chance of receiving the pain and suffering damages they are reasonably due, not just an amount artificially set by the number of survivors.