By: Stephanie Russo
Noneconomic damages for pain and suffering no longer are capped in medical malpractice cases after the Florida Supreme Court’s recent ruling in North Broward Hospital District, etc., et al., v. Kalitan that the caps violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Florida Constitution.
In Kalitan, a jury awarded over $4.7 million in total damages to a patient who suffered catastrophic injuries resulting from surgical complications. $4 million of the award was for past and future pain and suffering. Applying the caps under Florida Statutes, Section 766.118(2), the trial court reduced the judgment by nearly $2 million.
However, in the North Broward Hospital District case, the Florida Supreme Court declared the caps unconstitutional because they “arbitrarily reduce damage awards for plaintiffs who suffer the most drastic injuries” and because “there is no evidence of a continuing medical malpractice insurance crisis justifying the arbitrary and invidious discrimination between medical malpractice victims, there is no rational relationship between the personal injury noneconomic damage caps…and alleviating this purported crisis.”
The Court was divided with only four members joining in the majority opinion. In a scathing dissenting opinion, three justices argued the majority failed to properly apply the rational basis test and usurped the role of Florida’s Legislature.
The dissent argued the rational basis test places the burden on the party challenging the statute “to show that there is no conceivable factual predicate which would rationally support the classification under attack” and “a legislative choice is not subject to courtroom fact-finding” but instead “may be based on rational speculation unsupported by evidence or empirical data.”
Explaining that under the rational basis test, it “is immaterial that the majority of this Court disagrees with the Legislature’s evidence regarding whether there was (or currently is) a medical malpractice crisis in Florida,” the dissent concluded the caps do not violate the Equal Protection Clause because:
[T]he Florida Legislature could have rationally believed that the cap on noneconomic damages … would reduce malpractice damage awards, which would thereby increase predictability in the medical malpractice insurance market and lead to reduced insurance premiums. Then, as a result of decreased insurance premiums, physicians would be more willing to stay in Florida and perform high-risk procedures at a lower cost to Floridians.
The dissent accused the majority of “just discard[ing] and ignor[ing] all of the Legislature’s work and fact-finding” and “improperly interject[ing] the judiciary into a legislative function” in order to “essentially change a statute and policy it dislikes.”