In its decision dated May 21, 2015, the Supreme Court of Florida (“Florida Supreme Court”) held that Florida’s cap on noneconomic damages in Florida medical malpractice cases does not apply to a cause of action that arose before the cap became effective on September 15, 2013.
The Florida Supreme Court held that the cause of action in a medical malpractice case accrues at the time the malpractice incident occurs, and a litigant’s substantive and vested rights may not be infringed upon by the retroactive application of a substantive statute, such as Florida’s statutory cap on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases (“The general rule is that a substantive statute will not operate retrospectively absent clear legislative intent to the contrary, but that a procedural or remedial statute is to operate retrospectively. . . . Even when the Legislature does expressly state that a statute is to have retroactive application, this Court has refused to apply a statute retroactively if the statute impairs vested rights, creates new obligations, or imposes new penalties”).
The Underlying Facts
In 2002, the plaintiff was diagnosed with melanoma and had a cancerous tumor removed from her leg during an outpatient surgical procedure on December 2, 2002. The plaintiff was advised that her cancerous tumor had been completely removed and that tests indicated that no melanoma remained. Nonetheless, she sought a second opinion from the defendant surgical oncologist, who recommended further surgery to make sure that all of the cancer had been removed.
The defendant doctor performed a second surgery on the plaintiff on January 31, 2003 that resulted in post-surgical complications that required hospitalization for an infection, which did not completely resolve until April 2003. The plaintiff suffered permanent swelling, excruciating pain, and permanent limited mobility that prevents her from standing for long periods of time or walking long distances.
The plaintiff and her husband filed their Florida medical malpractice case against the defendant doctor in 2006. The Florida medical malpractice jury found in favor of the plaintiffs and awarded economic damages that totaled $16,104 and noneconomic damages for the wife’s pain and suffering in the amount of $1.45 million, and $50,000 to the husband for his loss of consortium claim.
The defendant doctor moved to reduce the award of noneconomic damages to $500,000, which is the cap (limit) on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases, pursuant to section 766.118(2), Florida Statutes (2003). The trial court denied the defendant’s motion, ruling that retroactive application of section 766.118(2)(a) is constitutionally impermissible. The defendant doctor appealed, and the appellate court reversed the trial court’s judgment and the jury’s award of noneconomic damages, holding that it was constitutionally permissible to retroactively apply section 766.118 in the plaintiffs’ medical malpractice case because the wife had no vested right to a particular damage award and thus suffered no due process violation.
The Florida Supreme Court quashed the lower appellate court’s decision and remanded the case to the trial court with instructions to reinstate the Florida medical malpractice jury’s verdict.
Source Miles, et al. v. Weingrad, M.D., No. SC13-54.
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