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Families urge lawmakers to end 'Florida free kill law'

Law prevents damages in negligence cases
Florida's Free Kill Law
Posted at 11:58 AM, Jan 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-13 22:22:04-05

SAFETY HARBOR, Fla. — It’s a loophole you’ve probably never heard nicknamed the “Florida free kill” law. For more than 30 years, it has prevented families of certain patients who die from medical negligence from suing doctors or hospitals.

The I-Team is now digging into what’s behind the only law of its kind in the nation and the organized effort to get it overturned.

“This is her light that’s always lit, never gets turned off,” said Cheryl Tuttle, referring to a colorful butterfly lamp in her living room.

Beside that lamp is a heart-shaped pillow made with fabric from her late stepdaughter’s favorite shirt.

“This was one of the last shirts Devan wore,” she said.

Devan Tuttle and her foster son
Devan Tuttle and her foster son before her death

Devan Amber Tuttle died in 2018 at age 41. Her father Tim Tuttle said the tragedy is something that is always with them.

Twenty miles away in Carrollwood, Travis Creighton feels an emptiness in the home his mother Jeraldine Creighton once filled with love and music.

“She was vibrant, she was active. A lot of life left in her and it was just stolen from her,” Travis said.

Devan’s and Jeraldine’s families say medical negligence caused their loved ones’ deaths.

“They missed it and they blew it”

Jeraldine suffered a heart attack, but Travis said the staff at the hospital where she was admitted didn’t properly administer her medicine and let her oxygen level drop too low. The hospital filed an adverse incident report with the state, but Travis says he only was able to get details after filing a records request.

It took him 474 days to learn about the nature of the errors.

Jeraldine Creighton
Jeraldine Creighton (courtesy Travis Creighton)

Devan went to the emergency room with an excruciating headache, but the doctor there focused on her heart rather than her head. After several hours, she lost consciousness and was taken to another hospital.

“No MRI was done on her head. It was done at the second facility when they transferred her out. They did one immediately and it said there’s no brain activity,” Tim Tuttle said.

Devan suffered an aneurism which, left untreated for hours, caused brain swelling and later death.

“They missed it and they blew it. And somebody should have to pay a price,” Tim said.

The Tuttles contacted multiple attorneys, but all refused to take the case.

“It’s nonsensical. It doesn’t make sense,” Tim said.

Creighton said he got the same response when he tried to sue.

“I can’t tell you how many weeks I spent dialing numbers just to find out the same answer that we can’t help you,” he said.

“It’s unfathomable how bad it felt, because you’re angry,” Creighton said.

“It’s an arbitrary line”

At Tampa law firm Maney, Gordon, Zeller, medical malpractice attorney Steve Zaloudek said he often has to turn away potential clients with strong cases.

“It’s Florida statute 768.21 section 8,” Zaloudek said.

That law, passed in 1990, exempts certain classes of people from being awarded pain and suffering and punitive damages in wrongful death cases.

“I always ask them if it’s a person who’s died as a result of negligence… before wasting their time… I say were they married? And if they weren’t, then I say did they have a child under 25? And if the answer to both of those is no, I have to tell them you’ve got no case and I tell them why,” he said.

The law prevents adult children like Travis or parents of adult children like Tim and Cheryl from suing. Jeraldine was recently widowed and her children were all over the age of 25.

“The law shouldn’t be that way. Justice shouldn’t be that way,” Travis said.

“It doesn’t make any sense of why our daughter is less important than someone that was 24. That’s what it amounts to,” Cheryl Tuttle said.

Tim Tuttle with rejection letters
Tim Tuttle got rejection letters from multiple law firms when he tried to sue the hospital and doctor he says was negligent in his daughter's death

Devan was engaged and foster-parenting a child she planned to adopt. If she would have been married, or if the adoption had gone through, her husband or child would have the right to sue.

“It’s an arbitrary line,” said Zaloudek, who said he receives calls from potential clients affected by the law at least once a month.

Malpractice insurance increases led to the law

When the law was enacted three decades ago, it was intended to keep doctors from leaving Florida.

“Medical malpractice premiums were skyrocketing and so the doctors and hospital lobby, which is very strong in this state and across this country, wanted to do something to bring those costs down,” Zaloudek said.

“They say it’s to lower the cost of insurance, but if you look at that inception of the law versus now, it has not lowered the cost of insurance at all. So it was a complete lie,” Creighton said.

“It needs to change,” said Tim Tuttle.

Many of those affected by the law are calling for lawmakers to do away with the loophole. Florida State Representative Spencer Roach introduced a bill last year to change the law.

“This bill would delete this carve out from medical malpractice wrongful death cases and would restore the value of human life,” Roach said during a hearing last year introducing his bill.

“I drove up to Tallahassee twice for the two subcommittee meetings prior to it going to the House floor,” Tim Tuttle said.

The bill passed the state House but was never brought to the Senate floor. It’s been reintroduced in the new session that started this week.

Creighton has made a sign and t-shirts he plans to display at the state capitol during the session. The t-shirts proclaim Florida the “free kill state” and show gravestones, skull and cross-bones, and other scary images.

The Florida Medical Association, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and other groups oppose the bill, saying it will result in more malpractice lawsuits.

Devan’s parents said even though their daughter’s death may have been prevented, it has already benefitted strangers who received her eyes, kidneys, and liver.

“She was a giver right to the end. She was an organ donor. So right to the end she was giving to other people,” Cheryl Tuttle said.

They hope her story will be her final gift, prompting legislators to change the law allowing Florida families to finally seek justice.

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