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Florida's Cap on Medical Malpractice Awards Upheld

Florida law caps jury awards in medical malpractice lawsuits at $500,000 for non-economic damages. Non-economic damages include compensation for pain, suffering and loss of consortium, along with punitive damages intended to punish bad behavior. . The law was passed in 2003 because medical malpractice insurance premiums were rising substantially, and many believed that medical malpractice caps would bring down both the cost of malpractice insurance and the cost of health care.

The constitutionality of Florida's cap on medical malpractice damages recently came before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which covers Florida, Alabama and Georgia. The case stems from the death of a birth mother in 2006.

During a medically-induced labor and delivery at an Air Force base hospital, the woman lost an excessive amount of blood. The woman's family accused the nurse at the hospital of concealing from the doctor that the woman's blood pressure had dropped to a dangerously low level. The family also accused the doctor of failing to check the woman's vital signs. Because of the extreme blood loss, the woman eventually went into shock, followed by cardiac arrest. She was unconscious for four days before life support was removed.

The family filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against the doctor, the nurse and the hospital, arguing that the negligent care the woman received after the birth of her baby resulted in her wrongful death.

The case was brought before a federal district court in Florida. There, a judge decided that the family would have been entitled to $2 million in non-economic damages if not for Florida's medical malpractice cap. However, because of the cap, the family was only allowed to collect $1 million -- $500,000 from the doctor and another $500,000 from the nurse. The jury found no liability on the part of the hospital.

The family appealed the decision to the Eleventh Circuit, arguing that the cap on malpractice damages was unconstitutional because it had no rational public policy basis. The State of Florida, the plaintiffs argued, had never been able to show that limiting noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases actually reduces the cost of insurance or health care. Without demonstrating that, the State should not be able to place an arbitrary dollar figure on the suffering of their family member.

The Court disagreed and upheld the lower court's reduction of the medical malpractice award in compliance with Florida's cap, determining that the cap does not violate the U.S. Constitution. However, the Court did say that the family could ask the Florida Supreme Court to decide whether the cap violates the Florida Constitution by presenting it as a certified question.

Source: Courthouse News Service, "Florida Can Cap Big Malpractice Awards," Marimer Matos, 1 June 2011

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