Thursday, March 25, 2010

Punitive Damage Cap Question Certified To Florida Supreme Court

In Lawnwood Medical Center, Inc. v. Samuel H. Sadow, M.D. (4D08-1968), the Fourth District certified the following question to the Florida Supreme Court as one of great public importance:
Are punitive damages of $5,000,000 arbitrary or excessive under the Federal Constitution where the jury awarded no compensation beyond presumed nominal damages but found that defendant intentionally and maliciously harmed plaintiff by slanders per se?
The facts were described as follows:
A surgeon with staff privileges sued a hospital for breach of contract, and later added a claim for slander per se, seeking compensatory damages for both claims, as well as punitive damages for the slander.  He alleged that the hospital had breached its contract with its medical staff, the Medical Staff Bylaws, by invalidly giving another surgeon exclusive privileges for cardiovascular surgery. The exclusive grant barred him from such surgery even though he had been approved for it by the hospital’s credentialing committee and medical staff leadership. The slander claim involved statements during the litigation by senior executive officers of the hospital that, among others, the doctor was not even “qualified to perform surgery on a dog.”
The jury found the hospital liable on the breach of contract claim and fixed his total damages at $2,817,000, reduced to $1,517,000 because he could have mitigated his losses. In separate proceedings on the slander per se claim, the jury found Lawnwood liable for the slanders; that Lawnwood specifically intended to harm him by its per se slanderous statements; that, in fact, it had actually injured him by the statements; and that he suffered no compensatory damages from the slanders but that he was entitled to punitive damages of $5 million from the hospital. After extensive hearings, the trial court denied Lawnwood’s post trial motions for directed verdict and a new trial or a remittitur of punitive damages to a reduced sum.
In the appeal of the contract claim, Lawnwood repeats its trial court argument of statutory immunity from liability to the surgeon. As to the claim of slander per se, Lawnwood presents no appellate issues regarding liability or entitlement to punitive damages. Instead it appeals solely the amount of punitive damages, confining its argument to the contention that $5,000,000 is excessive under the United States Constitution. Before addressing these two issues, we must first examine the evidence supporting the verdicts.
The court then provided an extensive analysis of punitive damage caps and the application of the specific case at issue.


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