Florida Supreme Court tosses medical malpractice caps

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Caps placed on how much money people can receive in cases where a doctor's mistakes led to a patient's death were declared unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday.

The lawsuit limits were part of a law then-Republican Gov. Jeb Bush pushed in 2003 in an effort to lower the cost of malpractice insurance rates and to keep doctors from moving out of state. Supporters at the time called skyrocketing insurance rates a crisis.

In a 5-2 decision, the court said the caps in such cases violate the equal protection guarantee in the state's constitution.

"The cap on non-economic damages serves no purpose other than to arbitrarily punish the most grievously injured or their surviving family members," the court wrote.

Non-economic damages are for pain and suffering, among other things. Economic awards, which have no cap, refer to lost wages or medical costs.

Florida law capped an individual doctor's liability for non-economic damages in most cases to $500,000 and no more than $1 million total if more than one doctor was at fault. The court questioned whether there was ever a crisis that needed to be addressed, but said even if there was, it no longer exists.

The ruling doesn't address caps in malpractice cases where the patient doesn't die.

The case involved a lawsuit filed against the federal government by the parents of Michelle McCall, who died after giving birth in 2006 while being treated by U.S. Air Force doctors. A jury awarded her parents and son $2 million, but a federal court lowered the award to $1 million, citing the state law.

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