Florida Supreme Court deems caps on wrongful death noneconomic damages unconstitutional

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Florida Supreme Court deemed caps on wrongful death damages unconstitutional after the wrongful death of a woman occurred under the care and misguidance of physicians from a United States Air Force clinic.

In 2006, Michelle McCall, pregnant in the last trimester, had prenatal tests revealing she had high blood pressure and suffered from severe preeclampsia. These two conditions required that Ms. McCall have induced labor immediately. Because the OB/GYN department at the US Air Force medical center was temporarily unavailable to deliver Ms. McCall’s baby via cesarean section, the safest method delivery in McCall’s physical state, she was transferred by the facility’s doctors to nearby Fort Walton Beach Medical Center for care.

A few days later, Air Force physician Dr. Archibald arrived at the Fort Walton Beach Medical center to perform the prescribed cesarean section. It was soon determined, however, that she was suited to give birth vaginally. After giving birth, Michelle McCall suffered many complications, such as extreme loss of blood after the placenta had to be removed manually. This lead to a dangerous and prolonged drop in blood pressure that the Air Force nurse anesthetist responsible for monitoring McCall did not communicate to Air Force practicing doctors.

Under the assumption McCall’s vitals were stable, Dr. Archibald began to surgically repair the vaginal lacerations caused by birth. Dr. Archibald did so without checking her vitals, relying solely on the nurse’s communication that McCall’s vital signs were normal. The procedure and McCall’s continually dropping blood pressure led Dr. Archibald to order that the patient’s blood count be checked. Dr. Archibald then ordered a blood transfusion, which was never performed. Eventually Ms. McCall suffered cardiac arrest and was rendered unconscious. Ms. McCall never regained consciousness.

Michelle McCall’s estate sued the Federal Government for wrongful death, in which the District Court concluded noneconomic damages totaled $2 million. However, the damages were limited to $1 million after applying Florida law’s previous statutory cap on noneconomic damages based on medical malpractice claims.

The damage cap was originally installed to lower statewide medical malpractice insurance premiums in hopes of attracting more doctors to Florida. Statistics revealed, however, that a “doctor shortage” in Florida was not actually a problem. Additionally, the law capping noneconomic damages was argued to discriminate against those who sustained serious injury or loss, as those in McCall’s case did. As a result, Florida Supreme Court lifted the cap as it violated the Florida state constitution’s equal protection clause.