Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Fourth District: Legislative Cap On Non-Ecomomic Damages In Personal Injury Cases Violates the Florida Constitution

In North Broward Hospital District et al v. Kalitan (4D11-4806), a panel of the Fourth District Court of Appeal concluded that a 2014 decision of the Florida Supreme Court required it to conclude that the legislative caps on non-economic damages in personal injury cases violates the equal protection clause of the Florida Constitution. The Fourth District's decision began as follows:
In Estate of McCall v. United States, 134 So. 3d 894 (Fla. 2014), the Florida Supreme Court determined that the caps on noneconomic damages awards in wrongful death cases, imposed by section 766.118, Florida Statutes (2005), violated the equal protection clause of the Florida Constitution. Art. I, § 2, Fla. Const. The instant case consolidates three appeals from a single medical malpractice incident with a final judgment finding Appellants, defendants below (“Defendants”), liable for the injuries and damages suffered by Appellee Susan Kalitan (“Plaintiff”). Plaintiff’s jury-awarded damages were limited by the trial court’s application of section 766.118, and Plaintiff’s cross-appeal challenges the constitutionality of those caps.
Accordingly, this appeal presents an issue of first impression in the post-McCall legal environment—whether the opinion (or, more accurately, opinions) of the Florida Supreme Court in McCall dictates our holding that the caps on noneconomic damage awards in personal injury medical malpractice cases are similarly unconstitutional. Although Defendants attempt to distinguish the caps in wrongful death cases from those in personal injury cases, and there are clear distinctions, McCall mandates a finding that the caps in section 766.118 personal injury cases are similarly unconstitutional. To conclude otherwise would be disingenuous. Consequently, we reverse the trial court’s decision below insofar as it reduced the jury’s award of noneconomic damages based on the caps in section 766.118
Note that it is the 2014 version of section 766.118 linked throughout the quote above. Section 766.118, Florida Statutes (2005), cited in the quote above, can be viewed HERE. The 2005 version was apparently amended twice. See  s. 204, ch. 2007-230; and s. 28, ch. 2011-135.

Next, the opinion explained the multiple decisions that make up the Florida Supreme Court's decision in McCall, and why the panel determined that the supreme court's plurality opinion in McCall must be followed in this case. The court seems to make it clear that whether or not you agree with the conclusion regarding the constitutionality of the caps is an issue to be taken up with the Florida Supreme Court - and therefore an issue this appellate court need not independently address. In conclusion, the court stated:
Per McCall, Plaintiff’s noneconomic damages were improperly limited by the application of the caps in section 766.118 and, accordingly, we reverse the noneconomic damages award in the final judgment. Defendants have asked this court to distinguish single claimant personal injury cases from the multiple claimant wrongful death situation addressed in McCall. However, we have found no basis to do so that would not conflict with the reasoning of the Florida Supreme Court’s plurality and concurring opinions, which strike at the underpinning of the Legislature’s caps on noneconomic damages in general. So long as the caps discriminate between classes of medical malpractice victims, as they do in the personal injury context (where the claimants with little noneconomic damage can be awarded all of their damages, in contrast to those claimants whose noneconomic damages are deemed to exceed the level to which the caps apply), they are rendered unconstitutional by McCall, notwithstanding the Legislature’s intentions.
The trial court is directed to reinstate the total damages award as found by the jury, though these damages may still be limited by the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Also, in the corrected final judgment, the University is not to be held liable for the damages attributable to the Nurse. As no challenge was raised as to liability in any other context, nor was a challenge raised regarding Plaintiff’s economic damages award, those portions of the final judgment are affirmed.
The 14-page opinion was written by Judge Forst, and the opinion was joined by Chief Judge Ciklin and Judge Stevenson. Some of the briefs filed in this appeal are available at the links below:


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