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An Orange County, Florida circuit court judge recently ruled that caps on victims’ damages in medical malpractice lawsuits are unconstitutional. Section 766.118, Florida Statutes was enacted in 2003 by the Florida Legislature and provided for a complicated scheme of caps on the amounts of damages awardable by juries in medical malpractice lawsuits. The law meant that the judges in Florida could only enter judgments against negligent hospitals, doctors, and nurses for certain maximum amounts, no matter what the jury found from the evidence. This statutory scheme contains a presumptive cap of $ 500,000 on non-economic damages, such as damages for pain, suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, and mental anguish, caused by the negligent health care professionals. The cap can, under certain circumstances, be increased by the judge to one million dollars, but no more, even if the jury awarded twice, three times, or ten times that amount in a verdict based upon the evidence in a particular case.
In 2004, Florida voters passed an amendment to the Florida Constitution, now found at Article I, Section 26 of the Florida Constitution, which mandates that victims of medical malpractice be allowed to recover “all damages” while also giving victims the right to limit the fees their trial attorneys can charge. The Orange County circuit court judge ruled on October 30, 2007 that the 2003 statute violates this new constitutional amendment and is, therefore, invalid and unconstitutional.
The right to trial by jury is what distinguishes the American civil and criminal justice system from all other systems of justice in the world. Our founding fathers thought this right fundamental to freedom and guaranteed this right in the Seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution, enacted in 1791. Thanks to this ruling, juries may now be able to perform their constitutional function and award the actual damages they find to be supported by the evidence, rather than an amount arbitrarily selected by politicians who have heard no evidence at all. Thanks to this court ruling, upholding the Seventh Amendment’s mandate that the right to trial by jury shall be preserved, juries in medical malpractice cases can expect their verdicts to be respected.