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Court rejects cap on malpractice awards

A state appeals court has overturned a 1988 Florida medical malpractice law that restricts damage awards for pain and suffering to $350,000 or requires binding arbitration. The ruling Tuesday came in the case of a 2-year-old who lost part of her right arm after a nursing blunder at Jackson Memorial Hospital, which is run by the University of Miami School of Medicine.

Joe Bizarro, spokesman for the Florida attorney general's office, which is charged with defending the constitutionality of state laws, said his agency was examining the ruling and had not taken a position on the case.

The decision by a three-judge panel of the Third District Court of Appeal upheld an April 1990 decision by Dade Circuit Judge Amy Steele Donner.

"I'm so happy with this," said attorney Stuart Grossman, who represented 2-year-old Patricia Echarte and her family. "Now that the people have spoken and the courts have spoken, I hope the Legislature will just leave this thing alone. I hope to hell the Legislature doesn't mess with this issue anymore."

A proposed constitutional amendment to cap such awards was rejected by voters. Tuesday's ruling found in the absence of such an amendment, statutory limits on such awards are unconstitutional. "Why would any human being want there to be a cap on damages that affect the most seriously hurt, an armless baby who needs the most chance for recovery?"

Patricia lost her arm while staying in Jackson's intensive care unit after surgery to remove a life-threatening brain tumor.

After the surgery, an arterial line was inserted into the child's right arm to monitor heart and blood flow. Nurses and health care workers didn't notice a blockage in the line that stopped circulation into the hand.

Four weeks later, her arm was amputated. She now wears a prosthesis.

Jackson officials admitted negligence. At the time, Jackson President Ira Clark called it "basically a nursing failure."