Medical Malpractice Damages Cap Comes Under Scrutiny

Doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies have banded together again to defend Florida’s cap on non-economic damages. For victims of medical malpractice, the cap seems arbitrary, unfair and, potentially, unconstitutional. The reason given to support the 2003 measure, the reduction of insurance premiums and the high cost of medical care, has not materialized and the only people who have benefitted are the insurance providers and negligent doctors. Last week, the Florida Supreme Court heard arguments to decide whether the cap violated the state’s constitution.

Non-economic damages are especially important to people whose contributions are not tied to a salary. These damages include pain and suffering, physical impairment, mental anguish, disfigurement, loss of capacity for enjoyment of life, and losses outside of lost wages and medical bills. This type of damage award is intended to compensate a medical malpractice victim for what they have truly lost. By capping those damages, the law restricts a judge or jury in its ability to decide on the merits of the case what the victim is owed.

The case at issue involves a woman who died because of the improper care she received during childbirth. Her estate sued the parties responsible and the federal judge overseeing the proceedings determined that the proper compensation included $2 million in non-economic damages. The state law automatically reduced that amount to the capped level of $1 million. The Florida Supreme Court will now decide if that violates the right of access to the courts.

The cap on non-economic damages has accomplished one goal-it has increased the profit margin of medical malpractice insurance companies. To accomplish that questionable goal, severely injured patients and the families of those killed by medical negligence have had their right to appeal to the courts, and receive the benefit of the courts’ decisions, stripped from them. The Florida Supreme Court now has to decide if that is allowed under the state’s constitution.

Source: Orlando Sentinel, “Court case tests state’s cap on med-mal damages,” by Jim Saunders, 8 February 2012