In 4-3 Decision, Florida Supreme Court Rules 2003 Tort Reform Law Unconstitutional

By  //  June 10, 2017

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law limited 'pain and suffering' damages in malpractice cases, helped to stabilize physician malpractice premiums

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that a law limiting pain-and-suffering damages in medical malpractice cases is unconstitutional.

On Thursday, in a 4-3 decision by the Florida Supreme Court, a 2003 law setting caps on medical malpractice damages in personal injury cases was declared unconstitutional.

The law, which was strongly supported by then governor Jeb Bush, limited non-economic damages in malpractice cases in which a patient was injured to $500,000, or $1 million if the injuries were catastrophic.

At the time the legislation was passed Florida physicians were faced with skyrocketing malpractice insurance premium rates with many exiting practice in the state.

The decision comes three years after the court struck down caps in cases where malpractice resulted in death.

Jorge Labarga, Chief Justice Florida Supreme Court (Florida Supreme Court image)

The four-member majority ruled that the caps on “non-economic” damages violated equal-protection rights, that the caps were arbitrary and that there is no proof that they reduced malpractice insurance rates.

They also said that there is no existing malpractice insurance “crisis” to justify the caps.

“We conclude that the caps on noneconomic damages … arbitrarily reduce damage awards for plaintiffs who suffer the most drastic injuries,” said the majority opinion shared by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince.

The three dissenting justices, Ricky Polston, Alan Lawson and Charles Canady, issued a blistering opinion that the majority was overstepping its role.

“The majority just discards and ignores all of the Legislature’s work and factfinding,” Polston wrote.

“But, under our constitutional system, it is the Legislature, not this Court, that is entitled to make laws as a matter of policy based upon the facts it finds.

Florida Supreme Court Justice Ricky Polston

“It is the Legislature’s task to decide whether a medical malpractice crisis exists, whether a medical malpractice crisis has abated, and whether the Florida statutes should be amended accordingly.’’

Florida has repeatedly tried to improve its medical liability system with reforms such as caps and expert witness reform, and the 2003 statute helped to bring down malpractice premiums for most physicians.

However, the state’s doctors still actually pay some of the highest premiums in the country, and with the state Supreme Court’s rulings over the past 3 years that deliver a stunning blow to the 2003 tort reform statute, it is highly likely that those premiums will again increase.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys vehemently oppose any tort reform that limits non-economic damages (pain and suffering).

Unfortunately, the Florida trial lawyer lobby, which has been essential to the 14-year campaign against the 2003 law setting caps on medical malpractice damages, is simply too powerful, and any laws serving to protect physicians will be perpetually under fire.