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Supreme Court Restores Justice to Medical Malpractice Victims

Some Florida conservatives don’t believe in fairy godmothers or unicorns, but they do believe a health care crisis exists.

I’m a Florida Republican, but I don’t believe in unicorns or a health care crisis.

On sunny golf courses and in smoky backrooms, the lawmakers’ doctor buddies continue to feed them dire opinions about physicians going out of business or offering fewer services to patients because of the astronomical cost of medical malpractice insurance caused by runaway juries.

This story is far, far, far away from the truth. Fortunately, the Florida Supreme Court didn’t buy it and ruled Thursday, March 13 that Florida’s morally corrupt cap on wrongful death non-economic damages violates the state Constitution’s equal protection clause.

A major piece of Jeb Bush’s legacy as governor was shoving the 2003 medical malpractice overhaul law through the Legislature and down Floridians’ throats. Bush and his followers did it while mimicking their medical puppeteers’ claim that the caps would improve health care by limiting how much victims of bad—sometimes horrifying—service by health care providers could receive, if they proved their case in court.

Florida’s medical malpractice law had placed a $500,000 cap on non-economic damages, an amount that increased to $1 million in the event of a catastrophic injury or death. The cap for emergency services was set even lower at $150,000 not to exceed $300,000. These caps applied regardless of the facts of any individual case.

Justice R. Fred Lewis got the, 5-2, majority opinion for the state High Court absolutely right when he slammed lawmakers, punched holes in the “alleged medical malpractice crisis” they generated and restored justice to people, such as 20-year-old Michelle McCall. The Fort Walton Beach, Florida mother bled to death in February 2006 following the birth of her son at the Fort Walton Beach Medical Center.

A federal judge (note this was not a runaway jury) ruled that McCall received improper care and found that her parents and son were entitled to $2 million in non-economic damages, but the award was reduced to $1 million because of Florida’s 2003 caps.

You see, the argument was that doctors struggle to make enough money.  So, for nearly 11 years we passed the hat to help them pay their bills. We passed that hat only to the victims and their families who suffered at the hands of doctors, not “allegedly” suffered but actually suffered in the jury’s opinion.

Justice Lewis wrote the cap “has the effect of saving a modest amount for many by imposing devastating costs on a few.” He added that it “imposes unfair and illogical burdens on injured parties.”

Absolutely illogical. Grossly unfair.  All built upon the fiction that doctors weren’t making enough money.

Their insurance premiums were apparently killing them. Indeed, malpractice premiums are high for some specialties, and so is the income. It’s like complaining that your insurance on your Mercedes is too high. In my 20-plus years of debating this issue both nationally and in Tallahassee, you know what single, dispositive piece of evidence has been lacking in this debate? A single W-2 from a physician showing his income.

This ruling also restores faith in jurors, who Americans should trust. It’s jurors who make the American legal system the envy of the world.

In fact, as Lewis pointed out, of the Florida cases that resulted in payments of $1 million or more during a 14-year span, only 7.5 percent involved a jury trial verdict. Meanwhile, 10.1 percent of $1 million cases were results of settlements that were resolved without a legal action ever being filed. That is right, admitted responsibility.

Today, 35 states have some type of cap on medical malpractice awards. Florida became at least the seventh state to declare medical malpractice award limits unconstitutional.

As someone who worked in the trenches for the Florida Justice Association against the law the Supreme Court struck down, I and other attorneys continue to claw, fight and earn even more battle scars. Still, the odds are daunting. After all, who predicts they will be the victim of malpractice? The overwhelming majority of patients (and voters) receive outstanding care, from compassionate and dedicated professionals. This does not, and can never, make anyone less responsible for the full measure of damages when, and if, a mistake is made.

– Marcus

Marcus J. Michles II is founding partner and principal attorney of the Michles & Booth law firm. Mr. Michles is the prior chairman of the medical malpractice committee of the Florida Justice Association. One of Florida’s top trial attorneys, he is also the founder of Michles Family Freedom Foundation, which provides assistance to families of military and first responders killed or seriously injured in the line of duty.

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