Retroactivity of caps on damages in Florida medical malpractice cases

An important case is pending before the Florida Supreme Court that will greatly impact personal injury medical malpractice noneconomic damage caps.

The Florida Supreme Court is set to decide whether caps on damages in Florida medical malpractice cases can be applied retroactively to injuries that occurred before the law was enacted. Specifically, the Florida Medical Malpractice Act imposes various monetary caps for noneconomic damages. The Florida Supreme Court will decide whether those caps can be imposed to limit Florida citizens' rights to recover damages that arose before the law was enacted.

Noneconomic damages

What are noneconomic damages? Damages in general refer to the losses that someone incurs as a result of someone else's negligence. There are two types of damages: economic damages and noneconomic damages. Economic damages are those damages that are financially measurable; the most common economic damages are medical expenses and lost wages.

Noneconomic damages are the human damages that cannot have a specific price tag. Noneconomic damages include:

  • Loss of ability to enjoy life
  • Pain and suffering
  • Inconvenience
  • Physical impairment
  • Mental suffering
  • Disfigurement
  • And more

Medical malpractice damage caps

There are a variety of different caps on noneconomic damages in the Florida Medical Malpractice Act depending on who the negligent defendant is and the specific injury that was caused. The issue before the Supreme Court in Miles v. Weingrad is whether these caps apply to an event that took place before the damage cap was enacted into law.

Miles v. Weingrad

In Miles, the plaintiff had leg surgery for skin cancer, after which she went for another opinion. The second doctor told her she still had melanoma and needed further surgery, to which she consented and which was performed.

However, lab tests showed that the tissue removed in the second surgery was actually not cancerous, and her leg became infected, permanently disfigured and painful. She and her husband sued the second surgeon for medical malpractice in the unnecessary surgery and problematic aftercare. That surgery occurred before the state legislature enacted the cap on noneconomic damages.

The jury awarded them $1.5 million in noneconomic damages and $16,000 in economic damages. However, the negligent doctor argued that the noneconomic damages should be reduced to $500,000 based upon the cap on damages that was enacted after the unnecessary surgery, but before the trial. The Third District Court of Appeal agreed with the negligent doctor and reduced the noneconomic damages to $500,000. Now the issue of retroactive application of the cap in this personal injury medical malpractice case awaits the Florida Supreme Court's decision.

(In a previous decision, the Florida Supreme Court found that the same statute's cap on wrongful death (as opposed to personal injury when the victim survives) medical malpractice noneconomic damage awards was unconstitutional.)

As of this writing in June 2014, oral arguments have concluded before the Supreme Court, but a decision has not yet been handed down.

Legal counsel imperative

Because of the complexity of the laws impacting medical malpractice lawsuits in Florida, and in particular because of the present state of flux caused by the pending Miles case, it is extremely important that any Floridian who has been harmed by medical negligence or who has lost a loved one under these circumstances should speak as early as possible with an experienced Florida medical malpractice lawyer to understand his or her potential legal remedies.

Keywords: Florida, Florida Supreme Court, case, medical malpractice, noneconomic damage cap, retroactivity