Capping Punitive Damages in Florida Medical Malpractice Cases – Estate of Michelle Evette McCall v. United States

The statutory cap on punitive damages in Florida medical malpractice cases remains intact – at least for the time being – thanks to a recent ruling by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

In Estate of Michelle Evette McCall v. United States, the Eleventh Circuit upheld Florida’s cap on non-economic medical malpractice damages, ruling that the statute under which it was enacted does not violate the U.S Constitution. However, the court opted to certify the question of whether the cap violates the Florida Constitution to the state supreme court.

Michelle McCall died in February 2006, shortly after giving birth via cesarean section at the Eglin Air Force Base hospital in southwest Florida. McCall’s estate, parents and husband sued the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”), 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346(b), 2671-80.

After a two-day bench trial, the District Court found the United States liable under the FTCA because the negligence of its employees proximately caused Ms. McCall’s death. The District Court found that the plaintiffs’ compensatory damages, or financial losses, amounted to $980,462.40 and punitive, or noneconomic damages, totaled $2 million. Because Florida Statute § 766.118(2) limits the recovery of noneconomic damages in a medical malpractice case to $1 million, the court capped these damages accordingly.

On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that the statutory cap violates the Equal Protection Clause of Fourteenth Amendment and constitutes a taking in violation of the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment. They additionally asserted that the cap violates various provisions of the Florida Constitution: (1) the guarantee of separation of powers in Article II, § 3 and Article V, § 1; (2) the right to trial by jury under Article I, § 22; (3) the right of access to the courts under Article I, § 21; (4) the right to equal protection under Article I, § 2; and (5) the prohibition against a taking of property without just compensation under Article X, § 6.

Ruling against the plaintiffs, the court first noted that the statutory cap on noneconomic damages against “practitioners” is not limited only to the liable physicians, but also includes damages against the hospital itself. Turning to the federal Equal Protection claim, the court held that the statute does not burden a fundamental right or draw a suspect classification and therefore does not violate the Equal Protection Clause because it is rationally related to the legitimate governmental purpose of reducing the cost of medical malpractice premiums and healthcare.

Similarly, the court rejected the plaintiffs’ claim that the cap constitutes a taking of property without just compensation in violation of both Article X, Section 6 of the Florida Constitution and the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution. In so doing, the Court found that a litigant does not have a property right in the form of a specific remedy, such as punitive damages.

Yet the Court left the door open for the plaintiffs’ remaining state constitution claims. The court declined to rule on these claims because they “raise important questions about the interpretation and application of Florida constitutional law in areas that remain unsettled.” Accordingly the court certified to the Florida Supreme Court the questions of whether the cap violates the state constitutional rights to equal protection, trial by jury and access to courts as well as the separation of powers guarantee.

As this case makes clear, medical malpractice law frequently entails complex litigation, conflicting expert witness testimony, and tense negotiations with medical malpractice insurance companies. An experienced medical malpractice attorney is vital to pursuing a claim after a medical error causes injury.

If you or a loved one was injured by poor medical care, contact the South Florida medical malpractice attorneys at Anidjar & Levine. We offer a free initial consultation from our Fort Lauderdale offices, so call the firm today at 800-747-3733 or contact us online.

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