Appeals Court Finds State Cap on Malpractice Damages ‘Legitimate’

On behalf of Brown & Crouppen, P.C. posted in Medical Malpractice on Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that a 2003 Florida law that limits the amount victims of medical malpractice can recover from the medical professionals responsible does not violate patients’ rights to be compensated for their injuries. The ruling gives backing to the law, which caps the amount patients can recover for certain noneconomic damages at $500,000 per medical professional.

The underlying case involved a woman who was pregnant with a son in February 2006. She went to the hospital to deliver the infant, and while there it became necessary to perform a surgical procedure on her. During the operation, a nurse noticed that the patient’s blood pressure had dropped to dangerously low levels, but did not alert the surgeon. The woman died shortly after giving birth.

The woman’s family sued the nurse and the doctor, whom they said failed to properly monitor the patient’s vital signs himself. After the trial, the judge found in the family’s favor and said that they were entitled to $2 million worth of compensation for noneconomic damages. However, due to the medical malpractice cap, the judge could only award $1 million, or $500,000 per defendant.

The family then sued to challenge that law, which the Florida legislature passed in 2003. They contended that the limit on damages effectively denied them access to the courts. Legislators passed the bill to reduce the cost of medical malpractice insurance premiums, but there was no legitimate connection between that goal and the cap, the family argued.

But the appeals court did not agree. In its May 27 decision, the three-judge panel cited a report written by a state House committee that quoted physicians who said that malpractice insurance premiums were affecting what they did in their practices and impacting their decision to retire in some cases. That report showed that legislators had a legitimate governmental purpose in deciding to cap compensation, the court said.

Similar to Florida, Missouri has a law that caps compensation for noneconomic damages in medical malpractice. Missouri’s cap is stricter than Florida’s; patients who are harmed by medical negligence in the state cannot recover more $350,000 in noneconomic damages.

Source: Miami Herald, “US appeals court upholds Fla. Med. Malpractice cap,” Greg Bluestein, May 27, 2011

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