Last year, we posted about the Supreme Court of Florida’s decision in Estate of McCall v. United States, 134 So. 3d 894 (Fla. 2014), which held that caps on noneconomic damages in wrongful death medical negligence cases were unconstitutional under the equal protection clause of the Florida Constitution. In a recent case, North Broward Hospital District v. Kalitan, the Fourth District Court of Appeal, which encompasses both Palm Beach and Broward County, addressed a question that remained in the wake of McCall: whether the reasoning in McCall applies with equal force to noneconomic damages caps in personal injury medical negligence cases. In a decision with a far-reaching impact, the Fourth District Court of Appeal concluded that it does, and it held that noneconomic damages caps in personal injury medical negligence cases are also unconstitutional.
The events that led to the Kalitan litigation occurred in 2007. That year, the plaintiff in this action went to North Broward Hospital District for outpatient surgery to treat carpal tunnel syndrome in her wrist. The procedures required the plaintiff to be placed under general anesthesia. During intubation, which was required for administration of the anesthesia, the plaintiff’s esophagus was perforated. Prior to this incident, the plaintiff had never had bodily pain beyond symptoms associated with carpal tunnel. After awaking from the procedure, the plaintiff complained of severe pain in her chest and back. The anesthesiologist was notified. Unaware of the perforation, the anesthesiologist ordered that the plaintiff be administered a drug for chest pain. The plaintiff was later discharged, and a friend drove her home. The following day, the friend went to check on the plaintiff and found her unresponsive. The friend took the plaintiff to the emergency room, where the perforation was discovered. The plaintiff was rushed for emergency surgery. The plaintiff was in a drug-induced coma for several weeks thereafter and had to undergo several more surgeries and intensive physical therapy. She continues to suffer with persistent physical pain and mental disorders arising from the trauma that occurred.
The plaintiff brought a lawsuit, which eventually went to trial on various issues. Following trial, the plaintiff was awarded $4,718,011 in total damages. The noneconomic damages awards were $2 million for past pain and suffering and $2 million for future pain and suffering. The plaintiff raised a constitutional challenge to the application of various caps on noneconomic damages pursuant to Section 766.118 of the Florida Statutes, but the trial court denied the challenge and reduced the damages award by close to two million dollars. The award was reduced by another 1.3 million dollars based on a sovereign immunity limitation that narrowed the defendant public hospital’s share of liability to only 100,000 dollars. As expected, the plaintiff appealed.
If you remember, the plurality opinion in McCall found that similar statutory caps on noneconomic damages in wrongful death cases were unconstitutional because the law irrationally and negatively affected damages awards when there were multiple claimants. 134 So. 3d at 901. Specifically, “the greater the number of survivors and the more devastating their losses [were], the less likely [the plaintiffs] are to be fully compensated for those losses.” Id. at 902. The plurality opinion then proceeded into an extensive equal protection analysis in order to determine there was a rational relationship between the statutory caps and a legitimate governmental interest. It found that there was none. The concurring opinion from the Supreme Court concluded likewise, noting that the state’s purported interest in keeping physician premiums low was not rationally furthered by the legislation because the legislation lacked a mechanism “to assure that savings are actually passed on from the insurance companies to the doctors.” Id. at 919. In assessing the combined import of the plurality and concurring opinions, the Fourth District concluded that the central holding was that, even assuming there was a legitimate governmental interest for having noneconomic caps on damages in wrongful death medical negligence actions at the time of the statute’s passage, the current data reflects that it has subsided and rendered a legitimate interest nonexistent. Id. at 914.
Applying this central idea to the facts presented here, the Fourth District concluded that caps on noneconomic damages in personal injury cases were similarly irrational and thus unconstitutional. The Fourth District noted that the purported governmental interest asserted for the passage of noneconomic damages caps in wrongful death medical negligence suits that were addressed in McCall was the same interest advanced for the noneconomic damages caps in personal injury medical negligence suits. Since, as the Supreme Court of Florida found, that interest was no longer viable, the caps on the damages at issue here were similarly irrational and thus inconsistent with equal protection principles embodied in the equal protection clause of the Florida Constitution. Furthermore, the Fourth District noted the common rule that the “disposition of a case on appeal should be made in accord with the law in effect at the time of the appellate court’s decision rather than the law in effect at the time the judgment appealed was rendered.” Hendeles v. Sanford Auto Auction, Inc., 364 So. 2d 467, 468 (Fla. 1978). Therefore, although McCall had not been decided at the time this case was originally tried, the law as it currently stands should be applied. The court thus reversed the district court ruling with an instruction that the caps on damages not be applied.
Although this decision will in all likelihood be appealed to the Supreme Court of Florida, it still stands as a major victory for those who have been severely injured as a result of medical negligence. Indeed, as noted by both the Supreme Court and the Fourth District, caps of damages irrationally harm those who happen to be more injured. Also important to note here is that the plaintiff was able to raise this constitutional issue on appeal because her attorneys pursued the issue during adjudication in the lower court. Indeed, had her attorneys been complacent with the application of these caps on damages being a foregone conclusion and declined to pursue the issue, she would have ultimately been unable to pursue the argument and get reversal on appeal. It is in the interest of those who have been harmed as a result of possible negligence to acquire the assistance of a zealous and experienced attorney who will pursue all viable issues on his or her behalf. The South Florida medical malpractice attorneys at Frankl & Kominsky have considerable experience representing injured South Floridians and are prepared to provide you with the zealous representation that your possible case requires. If you’ve recently been injured and are interested in learning more about your options, feel free to contact us for a free case consultation.