Monday, July 13, 2015

A Further Victory for Victims of Medical Malpractice: Appellate Court Finds Statutory Cap on Personal Injury Claims Unconstitutional




Last year we posted an article outlining the significant impact the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in Estate of McCall v. United States, would have on plaintiffs in wrongful death medical malpractice cases. In McCall, the Court determined that the caps on noneconomic (often referred to as “pain and suffering”) awards in wrongful death cases imposed by section 766.118, Florida Statutes (2005), violated the equal protection clause of the Florida Constitution. 134 So. 3d. Now, in North Broward Hospital District d/b/a Broward General Medical Center, et. al v. Kalitan, the Fourth District Court of Appeal has found the caps in section 766.118 in personal injury cases to be similarly unconstitutional.

The Current Statutory Caps in Medical Malpractice Cases
Section 766.118, Florida Statutes, limits the amount of damages a claimant may be entitled to in a medical malpractice action. Specifically, the legislative cap limits damages to $500,000.00 per claimant or up to $1 million in certain circumstances. In McCall, the Court reviewed the constitutionality of Florida’s cap on noneconomic damages for medical malpractice wrongful death claims and concluded that the caps “irrationally impact[] circumstances which have multiple claimants/survivors differently and far less favorably than circumstances in which there is a single claimant/survivor.” Id. at 901. As the Court noted in McCall, “the greater the number of survivors and the more devastating their losses are, the less likely they are to be fully compensated for those losses.” Id. at 902. In analyzing the legislative scheme against the backdrop of the Equal Protection Clause, the Court ultimately held that the cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages “does not pass constitutional muster.” While this was a huge victory for those injured by the negligence of medical providers and the plaintiff’s bar as a whole, the McCall decision left open the question of whether the statutory cap in personal injury cases are also unconstitutional. In a case of first impression, the Fourth District Court of Appeal answered the question in the affirmative and correctly stated that “to conclude otherwise would be disingenuous.”

The Facts of Kalitan
In Kalitan, the plaintiff, Susan Kalitan, went to North Broward Hospital to undergo an outpatient surgery to treat her carpal tunnel syndrome. The procedure required her to be placed under general anesthesia. While attempting to incubate her, one of the tubes perforated Ms. Kalitan’s esophagus. As a result, she had to undergo emergency life-saving surgery and was placed in a drug-induced coma. Ms. Kalitan was also required to undergo additional surgeries and intensive physical therapy. Consequently, she suffered from serious mental disorders and constant pain throughout the upper half of her body. Accordingly, a medical malpractice lawsuit against the hospital and doctors who negligently administered the incubation tube was subsequently filed and eventually went to a jury trial. The jury ultimately awarded the plaintiff $4,718,011 in total damages—$2 million for past pain and suffering and $2 million for future pain and suffering. After the trial, the court limited the noneconomic damage award by the caps provided under section 766.118. The Plaintiff appealed.

The Court’s Analysis & Conclusion
The Fourth District Court of Appeal analyzed the McCall decision and reiterated that the Legislator’s intent on enacting the statutory caps was to address the so-called “medical malpractice crisis” in Florida. If, as the McCall Court stated, no such crisis currently exists, then neither does the “legitimate state objective” to which caps could “rationally and reasonably relate.” The court determined that the caps violated the equal protection clause because the caps allowed those injured claimants who suffered damages less than the caps to obtain full compensation for their injuries but left those victims who have suffered damages exceeding the caps left without full and just compensation.

The court further correctly found that it made no difference whether the caps applied to multiple claimants in a wrongful death medical malpractice action or to a single claimant in a personal injury malpractice case. As the court stated, “so long as the caps discriminate between classes of medical malpractice victims, as they do in the personal injury context (where the claimants with little noneconomic damages can be awarded all of their damages, in contrast to those claimants whose noneconomic damages are deemed to exceed the level to which the caps apply) they are rendered unconstitutional by McCall, notwithstanding the Legislature’s intentions.”

Impact

This decision correctly determined that the legislative caps imposed by section 766.118 were founded based on a legislative intent regarding an alleged medical malpractice crisis that is now baseless. The result further upholds the rights of those who suffer harm and endure life-altering injuries at the hands of negligent medical providers by allowing those individuals to finally obtain fair and just compensation. Until the Florida Supreme Court holds otherwise or a conflict among the lower courts exists, the Kalitan court’s decision is binding law. Negligent medical providers will no longer be allowed to shield themselves from bearing responsibility for the true extent of the damages they cause. For more information on medical malpractice and personal injury claims, contact the attorneys at Dolman Law Group, 727-451-6900.

Dolman Law Group
800 North Belcher Road
Clearwater, FL 33765
727-451-6900

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