By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a state law that placed a $1 million limit on the amount of money people can be awarded in wrongful death cases caused by medical malpractice.
The 5-2 ruling declared as unconstitutional a key provision of a 2003 malpractice law signed by then-Governor Jeb Bush and enacted by a Republican-controlled state legislature.
Supporters of the 2003 law said at the time the limits were needed to keep a lid on insurance rates to prevent doctors from leaving Florida during what they described as a "medical malpractice crisis."
In its ruling, the court said the limits violate the right of equal protection under Florida's constitution.
"The statutory cap on wrongful death non-economic damages does not bear a rational relationship to the stated purpose that the cap is purported to address, the alleged medical malpractice insurance crisis in Florida," the court wrote.
The case arose from a lawsuit filed by the parents of Michelle McCall, who died in 2006 at the age of 20 while being treated at the Fort Walton Beach Medical Center after giving birth.
Her family sued the federal government because McCall was a military dependent had been treated by U.S. Air Force doctors. Her son was delivered but McCall died from complications of severe bleeding.
A federal judge awarded her parents $750,000 each and her son $500,000, but the judge also cut the total in half because of the cap on non-economic damages under Florida's state law.
The court questioned lawmakers' assertion that the state faced a malpractice crisis when the caps were put in place.
Justice Fred Lewis, writing for the majority, detailed statistics about insurance rates and claims and said that "even if there had been a medical malpractice crisis in Florida at the turn of the century, the current data reflects that it has subsided."
He added, "No rational basis currently exists (if it ever existed) between the cap imposed … and any legitimate state purpose."
The Florida Medical Association defended the caps in a statement in reaction to the ruling, arguing they helped discourage physicians worried about rising insurance costs from relocating outside of the state.
"This decision imperils our considerable efforts to make Florida the best state in the nation for physicians to practice medicine and for patients to receive care," the group's president, Alan Harmon, said.
"Thanks to the Florida Supreme Court, we can be sure that patients will face an intensified access-to-care crisis. The likely outcome will be that trial lawyers will refocus their sights on physicians, meritless lawsuits will clog our courts, and physicians will move to states with a more favorable litigation," Harmon added.
(Editing by Kevin Gray and Steve Orlofsky)