[Tallahassee, FL] In a closely watched case that stems from the death of a Panhandle woman, Florida Supreme Court justices heard arguments late last week about the constitutionality of medical malpractice damage limits that lawmakers passed back in 2003 after a long and contentious special session.
Justice Barbara Pariente, who repeatedly questioned attorneys, indicated a key issue is whether the caps on non-economic damages violate a right of access to the courts. Non-economic damages include compensation for suffering, pain and deprivation of the benefits of a family relationship.
Also, questions focused on whether Florida was in a medical malpractice insurance crisis in 2003 that justified restricting damages.
Robert Peck, an attorney for the estate of Michelle McCall, who died shortly after giving birth in 2006 in Fort Walton Beach, said the amount of non-economic damages in the case was reduced from $2 million to $1 million because of the limits.
“It’s basically saying you have a partial access to the courts,” Peck said before the court.
The estate filed the lawsuit against the federal government because McCall, who came from a military family, was treated by Air Force medical staff at a Fort Walton Beach hospital.
Lawmakers said the 2003 law, which capped non-economic damages at $500,000 or $1 million depending on the circumstances of cases, was needed because high insurance premiums were causing doctors to go elsewhere or to stop providing high-risk services.
Daniel Lenerz, a U.S. Department of Justice attorney, argued that lawmakers had substantial evidence that the caps were needed and that an Office of Insurance Regulation report indicates the changes have been successful in stabilizing the market.
Lenerz said overturning the law “would perpetuate this boom and bust cycle that has afflicted” the medical malpractice insurance market. Justices typically take months to issue rulings in such cases.
By: The News Service of Florida