Estate of McCall v. United States, No. SC11—1148, 2014 WL 959180 (Fla. March 13, 2014)
The family of a patient who died shortly after giving birth in a United States Air Force clinic brought an action against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) asserting medical malpractice. Following a bench trial, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida ruled that the United States was liable but applied Florida’s statutory cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages recoverable in a medical malpractice action. The plaintiffs appealed and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed ruling that the cap did not violate the federal constitution and certified to the Florida Supreme Court questions of whether the cap violated the Florida Constitution.
The Florida Supreme Court’s lengthy opinion considered whether the cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages in medical malpractice actions imposed by § 766.118, Florida Statutes, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Florida Constitution.
The Florida Supreme Court held that the statutory cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages recoverable in medical malpractice actions violates the right to equal protection under the Florida Constitution.
The Eleventh Circuit certified four questions regarding the constitutionality of statutory caps on noneconomic damages under several different sections of the Florida Constitution, including the provisions guaranteeing equal protection; access to courts; right to jury trial; and separation of powers.
The Florida Supreme Court stated that because the present case involved a wrongful death, it would rephrase the first certified question to address whether the statutory cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages violated Florida’s equal protection clause and concluded that it did. The Court noted that unless a suspect class or fundamental right was implicated, the rational basis test was proper to evaluate an equal protection challenge. Applying this test, the Court ruled that the cap imposed an unfair and illogical burden on injured parties when an act of medical negligence gave rise to multiple claimants. The Court held that to reduce damages in this fashion was arbitrary and irrational and offended the fundamental notion of equal justice under the law.
Further, the Court held that there was no rational relationship to a legitimate state objective. The Court observed it had an obligation to determine for itself whether the challenged statute served a legitimate governmental purpose and not simply “rubber stamp” the Legislature’s asserted justification for the cap. In reviewing the factors relied on by Legislature to find “a medical malpractice crisis,” the Court found they were not supported by available data and instead were completely undermined by authoritative governmental reports. The Court concluded that the remaining certified questions need not be addressed. The Court noted that an action for wrongful death is statutory and thus certain constitutional protections applicable to a common-law action such as right to trial by jury would not apply to a statutory action.