Florida Legislature Passes Bill to Cap Malpractice Awards

A bill that caps damages received by medical malpractice (search) plaintiffs in hopes of lowering insurance rates and helping the state retain doctors has won the support of lawmakers amid criticism by people on both sides of the debate.

The Legislature on Wednesday approved the measure, which is expected to be signed by Gov. Jeb Bush (search). Republican legislative leaders agreed to the bill last week after months of fighting over how to set caps on non-economic damages such as pain and suffering.

"I'm confident there will be a reduction in insurance premiums," Bush said. "I'm confident that we'll have a better system to deal with the small number of doctors that commit egregious malpractice."

But doctors whom the bill was intended to help have said they do not support it and insurance companies have said it probably won't lower rates. And malpractice victims said limits on damage payouts make it less likely lawyers will take cases, meaning access to justice could be denied.

The measure limits a doctor's liability for non-economic damages in most medical malpractice cases to $500,000. A medical facility's liability would be limited to $750,000 in most cases.

Sandy Mortham, chief executive officer of the Florida Medical Association (search), said doctors wanted a $250,000 hard cap with no variations.

Multiple victims - such as a victim, a spouse and their children - could file multiple lawsuits against the doctor and the facility, but no group of victims could win more than $2.5 million.

Economic damages, such as for lost wages or medical care, wouldn't be capped.

"I know this legislation will serve its intended purpose and bring relief to physicians, keep insurance companies writing policies in our state and protect victims of medical malpractice," said Senate President Jim King.

The bill reflects compromises by lawmakers following two failed special sessions on the malpractice insurance issue.

Bush, angry with the Senate's disagreement with him over lawsuit limits, had said campaign donors shouldn't give to Republicans who weren't on the right side of the debate.

Democrats, meanwhile, criticized the bill because it doesn't include a provision forcing insurance companies to automatically reduce premiums. Instead, it freezes rates until January.

Several states have wrestled with the malpractice issue. The U.S. Senate this summer killed legislation that would have capped damages for some malpractice victims at $250,000 - a ceiling sought by President Bush.