TALLAHASSEE – Florida's highest court held hearings earlier this month on a case that could redefine the ever-changing legal landscape of medical malpractice suits.
"This case really focuses on the issue of whether the Florida Supreme Court will take a 'restrained' view of its authority, by deferring to the legislature or will seek to 'legislate' from the bench," Tiger Joyce, president of the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA), told the Florida Record.
The ATRA is an organization seeking reforms to the civil justice and lawsuit system.
The case heard by the court began in Broward County in 2007. Susan Kalitan had surgery to correct carpal-tunnel syndrome, but suffered a perforated esophagus because tubes inserted for anesthesia into her mouth and esophagus allegedly caused damage.
In 2008, she sued the North Broward Hospital District, among others, and won an award that included $4 million in non-economic damages, known to most as pain and suffering damages. Katilan was at first awarded $4 million in non-economic damages, but that amount was reduced to $2 million due to a 2003 law placing caps on those types of damages, part of then-Gov. Jeb Bush's reforms of malpractice lawsuits. Katilan appealed the amount, and an appeals court ruled last year that the damage caps from 2003 are unconstitutional. The case was then taken up to the state Supreme Court.
Joyce said that uncapping those damages could have dangerous consequences for the state, as the caps have been successful elsewhere.
"We strongly support reasonable limits on non-economic damages in health care liability cases," she said. "They are an essential part of a reform package that has helped to reduce costs and enhance access to care, particularly with regard to high-risk specialists such as obstetricians, neurosurgeons and emergency room physicians. The success of such reforms has been well documented in states such as California, Texas, Mississippi and West Virginia. To date, 26 states have enacted such limits on medical liability."
The justices could take months to rule on the case and did very little to indicate in which way they might decide. In 2014, the court heard a similar case and ruled that damage caps were unconstitutional in wrongful-death malpractice cases. However, Katilan's case is a personal-injury case, not a wrongful-death case, so a separate ruling is needed.
According to Joyce, this case is actually about even more than that. She believes that the case will reflect whether the court feels the legislature should handle establishing this kind of law, or if they need to declare some of it themselves.
"The Florida case focuses on the authority of the legislature to make broader public policy without undue interference from the courts," she said. "From our perspective, the decisions of the legislature, approved by the governor, should be given great deference. When courts substitute their judgment for that of the elected officials in the legislature, it diminishes the prospects for reform in Florida and sets an undesirable precedent for other states."