Medical Malpractice in Florida: Supreme Court Rules in Birth Trauma Case

Forever . . . Florida’s State-run agencies, like public hospitals or the DOT, have long hidden behind the shield of the sovereign immunity statute, which limits the amount of recovery an injured person or grieving family can obtain in a civil personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit. The statute has also limited the fees that lawyers could charge to sue these agencies–making such cases economically impossible for many of the best trial lawyers to accept.1 The one exception is to get a claims bill passed, which is essentially a special law that permits payment for more than the statutory damage cap. Claims bills have been traditionally expensive and very difficult to get passed in all but the most catastrophic cases.2

Until now.

Supreme Court Rules in Birth Trauma Case

This week Florida’s Supreme Court reviewed a case that arose out of the traumatic birth injury of Aaron Edwards.3 Because of the negligence of employees at Lee Memorial Hospital, he sustained a catastrophic brain injury. He hired another Florida medical malpractice law firm to sue the hospital, under a standard contingency-fee agreement, which provided for a payment of 40 percent of any recovery if a lawsuit was filed, plus costs. The agreement also stated that “[i]n the event that one of the parties to pay my claim for damages is a governmental agency, I understand that Federal and Florida Law may limit the amount of attorney fees charged and in that event, I understand that the fees owed shall be the amount provided by law.”

The case proceeded to a five-week jury trial in 2007. The jury found Lee Memorial Health System’s employees negligent, and that the negligence resulted in damages to the child in the amount of $28.3 million. The jury also awarded the mother $1.34 million and the father $1 million. However, because Lee Memorial is an independent special district of the State of Florida, the trial court enforced Florida’s sovereign immunity damage caps, which is around $200,000 to $300,000, and entered a judgment against the hospital for only $200,000. The lawyers then embarked on a two-year lobbying effort to secure a claims bill from the Florida Legislature on behalf of the injured child and his parents.4

Ultimately, in 2012 Florida’s Legislature passed a claims bill, directing Lee Memorial to pay $10 million, with an additional $5 million to be paid in annual installments of $1 million each to “the Guardianship of Aaron Edwards, to be placed in a special needs trust created for the exclusive use and benefit of Aaron Edwards, a minor.”  

The claims bill further stated that payment of fees and costs from funds awarded in the claims bill shall not exceed $100,000, thereby making the fee allowed by the claims bill less than 1 percent of the $15 million provided by the Legislature.5

The lawyers, with the full support of the family, then petitioned the court to approve a closing statement allowing $2.5 million for attorneys’ fees and costs. The evidence presented to the court revealed that the lawyers spent more than 7,000 hours representing the family at trial, on appeal, and during the claims bill process, and expended more than $500,000 in costs. The court denied this request, and the lawyers appealed.

At stake in this decision is whether or not the legislature can constitutionally limit the amount of compensation a lawyer/law firm can receive in a claims bill, which could violate the terms of the contract that a plaintiff has entered into with his or her lawyer. To do so would exert a chilling effect on the ability of people to retain lawyers who are willing and able to sue the government when the government, in this case a public hospital, harms them.

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that both the First and Fourteenth Amendments guarantee people a right to hire attorneys on a salary basis to assist them in the assertion of their legal rights.6 This same constitutional right also extends to an injured plaintiff’s right to hire a lawyer on a contingency-fee contract–because without that, he or she might not otherwise have meaningful access to courts.

Thankfully, Florida’s Supreme Court agreed, finding that the claims bill’s language limiting the attorney’s fees was unconstitutional. This opinion is a significant victory for this injured child, his family, these lawyers, and–most importantly–for us all. Without this ruling, the government would continue to be insulated from being held fully accountable in civil personal injury, medical malpractice, and wrongful death claims when the government’s actions hurt or even kill others.

If you have been injured in Florida–in a slip and fall; a car accident, truck accident, or motorcycle accident; or by a careless doctor or hospital employee–you should contact the experienced lawyers at Aronfeld Trial Lawyers. Since 1991, our personal injury law firm in Miami has fought to protect the rights of the injured and their families.  

Call us today for a free initial consultation, toll-free at 1-866-597-4529, locally at 305-441-0440, or reach us by email at [email protected] or SKYPE. We are ready to help you obtain money as compensation for your injuries, lost wages, medical expenses, and other damages. We are ready to help.

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References   [ + ]

1. Section 768.28(1), Florida Statutes, waives sovereign immunity protection for actions at law against the state or its agencies or subdivisions for tort money damages and limits recovery under the statute to $100,000 per person or $200,000 per incident.
2. Thus, the Legislature specifically directs that recovery of any amounts that exceed the limited waiver of sovereign immunity may be collected only by way of a legislative claims bill.
3. SEARCY, DENNEY, SCAROLA, BARNHART & SHIPLEY, etc., et al., Petitioners, v. STATE OF FLORIDA, Respondent. Supreme Court of Florida. Case No. SC15-1747. January 31, 2017.
4. Because the waiver of sovereign immunity in section 768.28 limited the family’s recovery to only $200,000 of the $28.3 million judgment, a claims bill for the excess judgment amount was filed in the Florida Legislature in 2011, but was not passed during that legislative session.
5. No funds were awarded in the claims bill for the parents.
6. United Mine Workers of America, Dist. 12 v. Illinois State Bar Ass’n, 389 U.S. 217, 221-22 (1967).
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