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Florida Supreme Court Case Tests Limits on Medical Malpractice Awards

Michelle McCall went to the hospital in 2006 to give birth to her first son. Within days, she was dead of complications related to severe bleeding. Her husband and son sued for wrongful death and a jury awarded $3 million in damages: $1 million for financial loss and $2 million for pain and suffering, loss of consortium and other non-economic damages.

Florida law caps non-economic damages in circumstances like Michelle’s to $1 million, so the judge was forced to reduce the jury-awarded $2 million to $1 million, for a total verdict award of $2 million for her survivors. (The exact limit depends on the severity of the injury and who caused it; however, there is actually a lower limit when a doctor causes a death or severe injury than when a layman does so.)  Michelle’s family appealed the verdict, arguing that the limit on their recovery violated both the U.S. and Florida constitutions.

Michelle’s case is somewhat unusual in that it was brought in federal court under a special law called the Federal Tort Claims Act — rather than in a state court under Florida medical malpractice law — because Michelle was a military dependent and she gave birth in a military hospital. As a result, the federal court determined that the claims under the U.S. Constitution were without merit, but decided to ask the Florida Supreme Court whether the caps on recovery violated the Florida constitution.

Michelle’s family argued that the cap on recovery constitutes a barrier to access to the court system, since attorneys will be less likely to agree to represent someone when the law limits the amount of damages a plaintiff can recover. The defendants have answered that the Florida Legislature had good reasons to impose the caps, and that Michelle’s family has no evidence to refute the legislature’s judgment on the issue. The case was argued nearly a year ago, but the Florida Supreme Court has yet to rule.

If a loved one has been seriously injured by medical malpractice, the caps on recovery are problematic, but that does not mean that it is not worth bringing an action. The jury should reimburse you for all your economic damages, including your loved one’s medical bills, funeral expenses (if applicable), lost wages and any other out-of-pocket costs you have incurred. The fact that your loved one’s pain and suffering and your loss of his or her companionship may not be fully compensated is troubling, but it should not deter you from contacting an experienced medical malpractice lawyer as soon as possible.