After months of anticipation, the Supreme Court of Florida has issued its much-awaited decision in Estate of McCall v. United States of America. In a heavily divided opinion that spans nearly 100 pages, the majority of the court held that Florida’s statutorily imposed caps on wrongful death non-economic damages in medical negligence actions violate the right to equal protection afforded by the Florida Constitution. Although family members of the deceased person who died while receiving medical care from Air Force clinicians will welcome the news, the split decision leaves many unanswered questions that will likely need to be hashed out in other decisions.
In February of 2006, the deceased, McCall, was receiving care from family practice clinicians at a United States Air Force clinic when test results showed that her blood pressure was high and that she was suffering from severe preeclampsia, which required that labor be induced immediately. McCall eventually gave birth, but she later went into shock and cardiac arrest as a result of severe blood loss that occurred during the course of her labor and several associated treatments. Following this episode, McCall never regained consciousness and was removed from life support shortly thereafter.
This case arrived at the Supreme Court of Florida in somewhat atypical fashion. This wrongful death action was originally brought in Federal District Court, and the United States was found liable for McCall’s death. The federal court determined that there were economic damages amounting to nearly $ 1 million and non-economic damages amounting to $2 million, including $500,000 for the McCall’s son and $750,000 for each of McCall’s parents. Despite this finding, the Federal Tort Claims Act states that damages are to be determined using the law of the state where the tortious act occurred. Accordingly, the District Court applied Florida’s statutory cap on wrongful death non-economic damages in medical negligence actions, codified as § 766.118 of the Florida Statues. The law limits non-economic damage recovery from all defendants to $1 million in this type of suit, irrespective of the number of claimants. The decision was appealed, and the Federal Appeals Court upheld the application of the cap on damages, holding the cap did not constitute a taking under either Florida law or federal law and did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. However, since federal courts avoid rendering decisions with respect to unsettled state law, the federal Appeals Court granted the plaintiffs’ motion to certify several questions to the Supreme Court of Florida regarding the interpretation of Florida constitutional law .
Although four questions were certified, the Supreme Court of Florida addressed only one: whether application of the statutory cap violated the right to equal protection under the Florida Constitution. The majority of the court concluded that the aggregate $1 million cap on damages violated the state’s equal protection clause because the “arbitrary reduction of survivors’ non-economic damages in wrongful death cases based on the number of survivors lacks a rational relationship to the goal of reducing medical malpractice premiums.” In this particular case, each survivor’s damages was reduced to a greater degree simply because there happened to be more of them, a result the majority of the court found to be irrational and thus inconsistent with the right to equal protection afforded by the Florida Constitution. As the plurality opinion noted, “the greater the number of survivors and the more devastating their losses are, the less likely they are to be fully compensated for those loses.”
Notwithstanding the length of the decision, there was no definitive and binding majority opinion, since the justices disagreed about what degree of deference should be afforded to the factual and policy findings made by the Florida legislature when it implemented the legislation. In addition, the majority of the court avoided addressing the constitutionality of personal injury non-economic damage caps in medical negligence actions, which happen to be governed by the same statutory provisions. Accordingly, while the court’s reasoning has a far-reaching impact, the decision only definitively resolved a small set of issues.
Despite the narrowness of its opinion, the Supreme Court of Florida has dramatically altered the landscape for recovery in cases involving medical negligence. Given the still-unsettled nature of the law, the advice of counsel with considerable experience in the area is crucial for those considering bringing a wrongful death or personal injury action and for those who wish to understand the impact of this decision in a prior case in which recovery was limited by application of the state’s statutory caps. If you have questions, the South Florida wrongful death attorneys at Frankl & Kominsky are prepared to offer assistance. If interested in a free evaluation to understand your rights, click here, or call 1-855-800-8000.