Florida Supreme Court Decision Strikes Down Tort Reform Legislation

Last month the Florida Supreme Court issued a landmark decision that brought the issue of tort reform, specifically legislative “caps” on recoverable damages, back into the national spotlight.

In Estate of Michelle McCall v. United States of America, the McCall family challenged Florida statutory limit on the amount of non-economic damages recoverable in a tort case in federal court on constitutional grounds. In the context of a personal injury claim, non-economic damages are defined as “pain, suffering, inconvenience, physical impairment, disfigurement, loss of consortium, or other non-pecuniary injury.”

The McCall’s lawsuit alleged that Michelle McCall died due to complications after giving birth in February 2006. Because McCall was treated by U.S. Air Force medical personnel, her parents sued the U.S. government under the Federal Tort Claims Act, alleging that the medical personnel were negligent. After a bench trial, the McCall’s were awarded nearly $1 million in economic damages and another $2 million in noneconomic damages. However, due to Florida’s tort reform statute, the noneconomic damage award was reduced to $1 million.

Florida’s statutory tort cap essentially puts a limit on non-economic damages of $500,000 for personal injury, or $1 million for negligence resulting in a permanent vegetative state or death. On appeal, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the noneconomic damage cap in wrongful death cases violates equal protection under the Florida Constitution, because a statute that burdens one group over another must have a rational and reasonable relationship to a legitimate state objective. The Court concluded that the distinction made by Florida’s cap statute was arbitrary and unrelated to the goal of reducing medical malpractice insurance costs.

Over half of U.S. States, including Maryland, have adopted caps on non-economic damages in personal injury cases. Maryland’s tort cap, codified at Section 3-2A-09 of the Maryland Code, increases by $15,000 at the beginning of each year. As of January 1, 2014, non-economic tort damages were capped at $740,000 for personal injury cases, or $925,000 for wrongful death cases with two or more beneficiaries.

The last real challenge to Maryland’s tort cap came in 2010, when the Maryland Court of Appeals decided a case involving the drowning of a young child in a pool. In DRD Pool v. Freed (2010) 416 Md. 46, the Court of Appeals refused to address the plaintiffs’ argument that the State’s tort cap was unconstitutional, because the jury had an opportunity to weigh the facts and the plaintiffs were therefore afforded their right to a jury trial. Based on the tort cap, the plaintiffs award of over $4 million was reduced to $1 million.

The qualified attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience representing individuals who have been injured by the negligent conduct of another. If you or someone you know has been injured by the misconduct of another individual, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.