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Florida Joins Illinois in Rejecting Medical Malpractice Damage Caps as Unconstitutional

The Florida Supreme Court struck down that state’s cap on wrongful death non-economic damages because the cap violated the equal protection clause of Florida’s constitution. Justice Lewis wrote for the Court that the $1 million cap was unconstitutional because “it imposes unfair and illogical burdens on injured parties when an act of medical negligence” effects more than one person. He explained that the cap resulted in some injured people receiving full compensation while arbitrarily denying others compensation, meaning people were not treated equally before the law.

Caps on non-economic damages prevent those harmed by medical malpractice from being compensated for their injuries. Non-economic damages are meant to compensate the victims for the intangible harms they suffer. In a personal injury case, non-economic damages can include those for pain and suffering and emotional distress, while in wrongful death cases they can compensate the harmed parties for loss of consortium or loss of companionship. Awarding these damages allows a jury to acknowledge that the loss of a child or spouse is not merely harmful to the survivor because of the medical bills or loss of income, but that the loss of the actual person and the relationship is also a real harm.

Florida joins Illinois in a growing number of states that are undoing the damage done throughout the 1990s and early part of this century to civil litigants’ rights to recover for these injuries. Like Florida, Illinois used to cap non-economic damages in medical malpractice suits. Then, in 2010, the Illinois Supreme Court brought an end to the caps in the landmark decision of Lebron v. Gottlieb Memorial Hospital.

History of Medical Malpractice Caps in Illinois
The plaintiffs in Lebron alleged that medical malpractice caused Abigaile Lebron to suffer severe brain injury, cerebral palsy, cognitive mental impairment, inability to be fed normally requiring a feeding tube, and an inability to develop normal neurological function. At that time Illinois law limited Abigail and her mother’s non-economic recovery just as the Florida law limited recovery in that state. Illinois, like Florida, held that the cap on damages was unconstitutional. But the two states used different reasoning. In Illinois it was not an equal protection complaint that won the day for injured parties. Instead, Lebron argued that the cap on recovery violated the separation of powers in the Illinois constitution. That is, it was an example of the legislature doing a job that was reserved for the judiciary. Illinois courts have the power of what is called “remittitur.” Remittitur is a doctrine of law that allows trial judges to determine whether a jury’s award is excessive and to reduce the award if necessary. Since this is a judge’s job, not the legislature’s job, the Illinois Supreme Court invalidated the cap.

The Future of Malpractice Caps in Florida
The Florida decision invalidates the cap in that state for now. But the fight is not over. Lebron was not the first fight over caps in Illinois. The issue had already been litigated years earlier in the Best case, but the legislature passed a cap a second time despite the Best decision. Undoubtedly the powerful lobbies of the insurance and medical industries will try to undermine the Florida Court’s decision by passing a new cap. However, the Tampa Bay Times reports that Sen. Tom Lee, a Republican who negotiated the now overturned law’s passage and who is currently the Senate Judiciary Committee chair, is not confident another damage cap could pass during this legislative session. Both medical malpractice attorneys and brave individuals will have to keep fighting in upcoming sessions in order to protect our rights.

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