Periodically, tort reform is an issue that gains a lot of attention in the press. It begins when a news story claims that “outrageous” medical malpractice verdicts cause the price of healthcare to skyrocket. As a result, some states, including Florida, have passed laws limiting that amount of damages that an injured plaintiff can recover after a medical malpractice incident.
Florida’s Medical Malpractice Cap
Originally passed in 2003, Florida’s law does not limit the amount of economic damages that can be recovered. However, caps exist for non-economic damages like pain and suffering, mental anguish, and loss of companionship.
Non-economic damages are capped at $500,000. However, if the court determines that, based on the severity of the injuries, that “manifest injustice” would occur if the cap was enforced, then patients with catastrophic injuries may collect up to $1 million in non-economic damages.
Additionally, if a practitioner’s negligence results in death or a permanent vegetative state, the non-economic damages cap is $1 million.
Cap Justification Fallacious
Proponents of damages caps believe they prevent high verdicts in so called “frivolous” suits, which can drive up the cost of healthcare. However, a recent study from Johns Hopkins University casts doubts on this argument.
In the study, researchers looked at nationwide medical malpractice claims. They looked at verdicts and settlements over a six year period. They focused their attention on verdicts or settlements that were over $1 million.
The study discovered that only 7.9% of the 77,621 medical malpractice verdicts over this period were over $1 million. Furthermore, it found that verdicts or settlements of $1 million or higher only constituted 36.2% of the $27 billion in malpractice payouts. The researchers also found that high verdicts and settlements averaged about $1.4 billion per year. This is less than 1% of the annual income spent on medical expenses in the United States.
In addition, the researched showed that plaintiffs overwhelmingly recovered high verdicts or settlements only in severe case. High verdicts often occur when the patient is under the age of one, suffers brain damage, becomes a quadriplegic, or needs long-term care.
According to the authors of the study, the results show that high malpractice verdicts are merely a drop in the bucket when it comes to healthcare costs. Alternatively, they suggest that the real drain on healthcare lies in defensive medicine. This is when doctors order unnecessary tests and procedures out of fear of making a mistake.
These unnecessary procedures and tests are responsible for $60 billion in healthcare expenditures each year. The authors suggest that lawmakers should focus on curbing defensive medicine, rather than capping medical malpractice cases.
As the study shows, it’s clear that high malpractice verdicts and settlements are rare. Therefore, they have a negligible impact on healthcare costs. Therefore, people who suffer from a doctor’s mistakes should not hesitate, out of fear of “bankrupting” the system, to seek due compensation.