Florida lawmakers are seeking to limit the amount of non-economic damages that can be recovered by plaintiffs in personal injury lawsuits.
Specifically, HB 17 would impose a $1 million cap on payments made to injury claimants for intangible losses like pain and suffering, emotional anguish and loss of life enjoyment. While it’s true these losses are more subjective than things like medical bills or lost income, they are no less worthy of compensation.
As long-time Fort Myers personal injury lawyers, we know tort reform efforts like this are nothing new in Florida. Insurers and big corporations have lobbied intensely for them for decades. Proponents argue reform is necessary to keep consumers’ insurance rates in check and prevent frivolous claims and outrageous damage awards.
The truth of the matter is frivolous claims aren’t nearly the issue corporate special interests groups would have us believe. Plaintiffs bear the burden of proof, and it’s often a high one. Further, judges – those we trust to carefully and impartially weigh evidence – already have the discretion to reduce damage awards they deem unreasonably high. Finally, it’s been proven time and again measures like this don’t lower anyone’s insurance rates and impose the greatest harm on those already suffering most.
Florida Damage Caps Have Already Proven Ineffective, Harmful
One of the most recent examples of this was outlined in the 2017 Florida Supreme Court decision striking down a $1 million cap on non-economic damages for medical malpractice wrongful death cases. At the time that bill passed in 2003, lawmakers insisted Florida was in the midst of a “medical malpractice insurance crisis” fueling a mass exodus of physicians, but that wasn’t true. The court’s scrutiny revealed doctors weren’t fleeing out-of-control insurance rates – then or now. What’s more, during the years the damage cap was in effect, four Florida medical malpractice insurers increased their net income by 4,300 percent; however, doctors’ premiums didn’t drop to any notable degree.
In other words, insurers made higher profits but didn’t pass their savings onto consumers. Meanwhile, the greatest adverse impact was felt by the minority who were already suffering the most profound harm. As the court put it, the damage cap had the effect of “saving a modest amount for many by imposing devastating costs on a few – those who are most grievously injured, those who sustain the greatest damage and loss…”
HB 17 would impose a cap for the very same amount for very similar reasons, except to personal injury claims rather than medical malpractice wrongful death.
Caps Already Exist on Some Florida Injury Lawsuit Damages
Both economic and non-economic damages are forms of “compensatory damages,” intended to make the victim “whole” again to the greatest extent possible. This differs from punitive damages, intended to punish defendants for egregious wrongs exceeding mere negligence, which is the absence of reasonable care.
Florida requires plaintiffs seeking punitive damages to first obtain special permission from the court to ensure the evidence meets the minimum legal threshold. Even then, punitive damages are capped at $500,000 or $2 million, depending on whether the defendant was driven by a financial motive. Juries can still award damages in excess of that, but that’s not what the plaintiff is ultimately paid.
Drunk driving cases are among the few types of Florida personal injury cases in which judges consistently permit plaintiffs to pursue punitive damages. Most Florida injury verdicts and settlements only involve compensatory damages, and HB 17 targets a significant portion of that.
Florida Bill Would Most Harm Those With the Worst Injuries
Our Fort Myers personal injury lawyers fight tirelessly for our clients, but we know unfortunately all too well there are some injuries for which no amount of money is going to be fully restorative.
For example, what would be a “fair” price for severe traumatic brain injury due to unsafe conditions at a hotel? Or a spinal cord injury caused by a drunk driver rendering one immobilized from the neck down? What amount reasonably compensates an innocent person for that level of emotional distress? Mental anguish? Loss of life enjoyment? How about for their spouse, children or parents?
The reality is none of us would sign up for that if we had a choice because no amount of money would be worth it. Non-economic damages in excess of $1 million aren’t the norm in Fort Myers personal injury cases that don’t involve very serious or catastrophic injuries with profound and lasting impacts on a person’s life. THOSE are the people who would be most harmed by the bill Florida lawmakers are now proposing.
If you are injured in Fort Myers, contact our injury attorneys at the Garvin Firm at 800.977.7017 for your free initial consultation.
With new Florida Supreme Court, House takes aim at limiting personal-injury lawsuit damages, March 17, 2019, By Gary Roher, The Orlando Sentinel
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