Malpractice Law to Be Argued Again
Less than three months after ruling that part of a controversial 2003 medical-malpractice law was unconstitutional, the Florida Supreme Court is ready to take up another dispute about limits on damages in malpractice cases.
Justices next week will hear arguments in a Miami-Dade County case that centers on a woman, Kimberly Ann Miles, who suffered complications in early 2003 after what she said was an unnecessary surgery on her leg. A jury awarded the woman and her husband $1.5 million in pain-and-suffering damages, but lower courts reduced that amount to $500,000 because of limits in the medical-malpractice law, which was passed later in 2003.
The Supreme Court is faced with deciding whether damage limits should apply to injuries suffered before the law took effect --- a concept known as "retroactivity." Miles and her husband, Jody Haynes, filed the lawsuit against physician Daniel Weingrad in January 2006, nearly three years after the injury.
Attorneys for Miles wrote in court documents that applying the limits retroactively violates constitutional due-process rights. But attorneys for the doctor contend that the Legislature included the possibility of retroactivity in the 2003 law because it was dealing with a medical-malpractice "crisis" that, in part, had driven up physicians' insurance costs.
"It is clear that the Legislature weighed the depth of the medical malpractice crisis against any potential unfairness or due process concerns that would be implicated by the application of the caps,'' Weingrad's attorneys wrote in a brief. "In doing so, it only applied the caps to plaintiffs who had not yet served notices of intent or complaints and thus could not have conceivably had any tangible expectations of a particular award for non-economic damages."
But Miles' attorneys wrote that lawmakers, while focused on capping damages, never placed heavy emphasis on making the limits retroactive.
"There is nothing to indicate that the retroactive application of the cap on medical malpractice damages was thought to be necessary,'' they wrote in a brief.
Supreme Court justices are scheduled to hear arguments in the case June 4, and they typically take months to issue rulings.
The effort by then-Gov. Jeb Bush and Republican lawmakers in 2003 to limit malpractice lawsuits touched off one of the biggest political battles in years in Tallahassee. Much of the debate focused on capping non-economic damages, which often are known as pain-and-suffering damages.
Plaintiffs' attorneys argued that damage caps would take away legal rights of malpractice victims, while doctors and hospitals contended the limits were needed to hold down soaring insurance costs. In the end, the Legislature approved a law that included limits on non-economic damages of $500,000 or $1 million, depending on the circumstances and number of people involved in a case.
The Supreme Court in March rejected part of the law when it sided with the family of a Panhandle woman who died in 2006 from complications after giving birth. The family appealed to the Supreme Court after being awarded $1 million in non-economic damages in a malpractice lawsuit. A judge had agreed with arguments that the family should receive $2 million but reduced the amount because of the 2003 law.
Justices ruled that the cap on damages in such wrongful death cases was unconstitutional and pointed to equal-protection issues.
The Miles case is different, at least in part, because it does not involve a wrongful-death claim.
In court documents, Miles' attorneys said she was diagnosed with melanoma in 2002 and had a tumor removed. She then went to see Weingrad, a surgical oncologist, who said the first procedure did not remove all of the melanoma and that she needed an additional surgery.
The lawsuit alleged that tests later showed the second procedure was unnecessary and that Miles suffered complications that included needing to be hospitalized for an infection. The court documents said she suffered permanent damage.