Legal decisions, especially those by higher courts can seem dry and dull when they become news announcements. A legal ruling might support, in Superman’s words, “truth, justice and the American Way.” However, sometimes we can only see those abstract values after we read beneath the formal, legal arguments, law briefs and verdicts. (Yes, it’s a little bit like being unable to see the forest because of all the trees.)
Behind the Legal Language: At the Heart of the Malpractice Ruling
Therefore, this Metts Legal Blog brings you the human story behind our previous blog article. That blog reported the recent Florida Supreme Court decision regarding malpractice suits. In that article, we explain the 2003 caps on damages for pain and suffering and a new ruling regarding them.
We suggest you read or review that article before continuing. This blog is Part Two of our coverage of the Supreme Court topic, opened in “Medical Malpractice: 2003 Limits Are Now Unconstitutional.”
So, let’s take a look at the human story that caused the Florida Supreme Court to battle over limiting damages for catastrophic injury in medical malpractice suits. This is the story of Susan Kalitan and her fight for justice against the North Broward Hospital District and associated parties in her medical malpractice suit.
Legal Battle Begins With Medical Negligence: The Susan Kalitan Story
In 2007 Susan went into the hospital to have minor wrist surgery for a very common modern problem: carpel tunnel syndrome. You might already know that general anesthesia often requires the insertion of a tube down the esophagus. In Ms. Kalitan’s case, unbeknownst to the surgical team, the tube actually penetrated her esophagus.
Although she had never had esophageal problems of any kind, she woke with terrible pain in her chest and back. The anesthesiologist did not catch the clues, and neither did her other doctors, nor three different healthcare workers. They only answered her complaints with pain medicine. Then a neighbor took her home.
In the words of attorney Crane Johnstone, “They never got a physician in to see her, despite the rules and the regulations of the hospital, that say that the etiology — the cause of this pain — should be determined if at all possible. And nobody did that…They never checked on her that afternoon to make sure that when the pain medication wore off she was ok…”
Legal Meaning of “Catastrophic Injury”
By the next day, her neighbor discovered her unconscious body. That was only the beginning of the medical nightmare. She endured the rigors of life-saving surgery, infection and sepsis. She spent many weeks in a drug-induced coma. More surgeries followed. She continued to experience pain and mental trauma. Subsequently, she underwent intensive therapy to enable her to eat normally.
Her pain and mental trauma continue until the present. As a result of the punctured esophagus, Susan Kalitan is a victim of “closed head injury,” in legal terms. The court transcript includes a list of brain-related problems no one would want to endure: “She suffered ICU psychosis, post-traumatic stress syndrome…significant memory limitations and cognitive difficulties.” Therefore, mental problems and pain continue to fill her days and nights, and she has lost her independence. The legal term for the status of her injury is “catastrophic.”
Legal Power and One Person’s Story
In 2008, Susan Kalitan won her medical malpractice suit against the North Broward Hospital District and other defendants. On top of her economic award, the jury awarded her with $4 million in non-economic damages, but the amount was reduced by about $2 million because of the caps in the 2003 law.”
Jury Award Versus Caps In Malpractice Case
The break-down the jury wanted was 2 million dollars for current pain-and-suffering (non-economic award) and 2 million dollars for future pain and suffering (non-economic award.) According to the 2003 caps, that award could not happen. Even in the case of catastrophic injury, the 2003 Florida cap was set at one million dollars.
In other words, the state felt it had the right to enforce limits on the amount of money the jury could award. In her appeal, Susan Kalitan and her lawyers challenged the constitutionality of the caps. She won. With their new ruling, the Supreme Court has upheld the agreement of the 4th District Court of Appeals. Thus, finally, in 2017, thanks to the new Florida Supreme Court Ruling, she has won.
Legal Ammunition against Caps on Pain and Suffering
In a very basic way, most people know, if only from television drama, that court cases are won or lost based on precedents. Two of the most important legal points in this case were:
1. A Florida Law Right Guaranteed: The “right to equal protection under the law…”
The Justices declared, “The 2003 law violates equal-protection rights because the arbitrary reduction of compensation without regard to the severity of the injury does not bear a rational relationship to the Legislature’s stated interest in addressing the medical malpractice crisis.” In fact the consensus was, there was no such malpractice crisis in evidence. Hence, reasoning mandated there should be no legal limits on what a jury could award for pain and suffering of a catastrophic injury.
2. A Similar Caps Law Defeated: The Florida Supreme Court declared the wrongful-death precedent last year in the case of the Estate of McCall v. the United States. The caps on the award the jury could decree were declared unconstitutional in a case of wrongful death. “Though the Florida Legislature capped non-economic damages awards in wrongful-death cases 12 years ago in its passage of section 766.118, McCall found this to violate the equal-protection clause of the Florida Constitution.”
The Fourth District Court of Appeal agreed with Susan Kalitan’s argument that if the caps are unconstitutional for wrongful death juries, then they are just as wrong, just as unconstitutional, in cases of catastrophic injury. The Supreme Court ruling agreed.
Violation of Equal Protection
Limiting a jury’s award in either type of case has now been judged to be in violation of the equal-protection clause of the Florida Constitution. This includes equal protection for heirs of the dead and the catastrophically injured. Likewise, in the case of injury, no set limits will be arbitrarily placed on different injuries. The award for loss of a hand, an eye, mental ability or an esophagus will now be up to the jury, not to arbitrary, legal “caps” in the law.
Nichole Segal, a lawyer representing Kalitan, stated that under the 2003 law, “many plaintiffs were settling for less than they deserved because of the caps…” She added, “Some law firms weren’t taking up cases because they can be very expensive to litigate and the limits made them less profitable.” That will change with the new ruling. That is the power of one person’s story.
As we mentioned in Part One of this topic, Segal also stated, “This will affect every single person who brings a medical negligence case.”
Because of this ruling, Florida juries will not have caps on the amount of damages that they award. This includes pain and suffering in medical malpractice suits. Remember, the injured patient could be you. Likewise, you could be in the jury box.
Mett’s Legal brought you this story to show you details about how the “American Legal Way,” works. We’re not saying the Supreme Court Justices are Supermen. But they are the highest interpreters of legal truth and justice in the laws of this land. And we think that is pretty super.