Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals Upholds Florida’s Cap on Noneconomic Medical Malpractice Damages and Certifies Questions to Supreme Court of Florida

Jul 1, 2011 | By

 

Recently, in Estate of McCall ex rel. McCall v. U.S., No. 09-16375, 2011 WL 2084069, at *1 (11th Cir. May 27, 2011), the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion upholding the constitutionality of Florida’s limitation on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases in that the statute did not violate equal protection under the United States Constitution and did not constitute a taking of private property under the United States and Florida Constitutions.  The court certified questions to the Supreme Court of Florida with respect to the Florida Constitution:  whether the statute violated the right to equal protection, the right to access to courts, the right to trial by jury, and the guarantee of separation of powers.   

The case commenced by the estate filing suit for medical malpractice under the federal Tort Claims Act for the death of Michelle McCall. The United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida applied section 766.118(2), Fla. Stat., to cap noneconomic damages to $1 million for “practioners,” rather than the actual $2 million in damages found by the court.  The court rejected the estate’s claim that the higher $1.5 million cap for “nonpractitioners” was available in this case.   The court denied motions by the estate challenging the constitutionality of the statute under the Florida and United States Constitutions.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that the district court properly applied the cap as to “practitioners” because the estate did not establish that the death resulted from the negligence of a nonpractitioner.  The court rejected the claim that the statutory cap violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, in that the statutory cap had a rational relationship to the legitimate governmental purpose of reducing the cost of medical malpractice premiums and heath care.  The court also rejected the claim that the statutory cap constituted a taking without compensation in violation of the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article X, Section 6 of the Florida Constitution, finding that the statutory cap did not interfere with or deprive a vested right. 

The estate raised additional constitutional challenges to the statutory cap based on various provisions of the Florida Constitution, specifically, the right to equal protection under Article I, Section 2; right of access to the courts under Article I, Section 21; the right to trial by jury under Article I, Section 22; and the separation of powers guaranteed by Article II, Section 3 and Article V, Section 1.  Finding the interpretation and application of law unsettled, the Eleventh Circuit granted the estate’s motion to certify questions concerning those claims to the Supreme Court of Florida. 

As of the date of this article, there has been no decision as to whether the Supreme Court of Florida will accept review and answer the certified questions.  Since the passage of section 766.118, Fla. Stat., as a result of the 2003 tort reform, the statute has been the subject of many constitutional challenges.  However, the constitutionality of the statutory cap on noneconomic damages remains an open question in Florida.

 

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