Florida Caps on Noneconomic Damages are Unconstitutional

Estefania Borrero – In 2017, the Supreme Court of Florida forever changed the lives of Plaintiffs and the deep pockets of insurance companies. In North Broward Hospital District v. Kalitan, the state’s highest appellate court ruled that medical malpractice and personal injury caps on non-economic damages are unconstitutional.

In 2003, the Florida Legislature enacted Section 766.118, Florida Statutes, with the purpose of addressing a medical malpractice insurance crisis. The Legislature asserted that the increase in medical malpractice insurance was causing physicians to leave Florida, retiring early from the practice of medicine, or refusing to perform high-risk procedures. The law limited non-economic damages, which includes pain and suffering, against doctors in malpractice case to $500,000, or $1 million if the injuries were catastrophic.

In Kalitan, a woman was severely injured while doctors performed wrist surgery to alleviate her carpal tunnel syndrome at a Broward County hospital.  An anesthesia tube punctured Susan Kalitan’s esophagus during the surgery. She awoke and complained of severe back and chest pain. Doctors were unaware of the injury and gave her pain medication and sent her home, according to court documents.

A jury awarded her $2 million for past pain and suffering and $2 million for future pain and suffering. A lower court judge determined that Kalitan’s injuries were catastrophic, but the non-economic award was reduced by about $3.3 million because of the medical malpractice caps and separate law that limited the government-run hospital’s liability to $100,000.

The Supreme Court analyzed that the different subsections on the statute created a distinction between the classes of medical malpractice victims, arbitrarily reducing the damages that may be awarded to the most drastically injured victims. In determining whether the statute violated the Equal Protection Class, the Court found that the statutory caps failed to meet the rational basis test because the statute is not rationally related to a legitimate government interest. The Supreme Court explained that there is no evidence that the caps placed in 2003 reduced the malpractice insurance rates that lawmakers were attempting to contain. Even if they did, there was no present crisis to justify the caps.  In a 4-3 decision, justices also said the caps unfairly hurt those most severely injured by doctors’ mistakes.

The decision in Kalitan changed the lives of personal injury and medical malpractice victims as well as the future of malpractice cases. In the past, due to the caps set by the statute, Plaintiffs were more likely to settle a medical malpractice case. Law firms were unlikely to take cases due to the high cost of litigation and the small profit margins resulting from the limits on recovery for noneconomic damages. After the Supreme Court’s decision in Kalitan, Plaintiff’s attorneys are more likely to take cases to trial, regardless of the cost of litigation because their recovery will be limited only by the determination of the jury and not by an arbitrary statutory cap.

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