U.S. Supreme Court & Florida Supreme Court Decisions May Have Significant Impact on Pennsylvania Civil Litigation & Damages

Published on: March 23, 2014

Two recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court and the Florida Supreme Court may have a significant impact on Pennsylvania cases.

In Daimler AG v. Bauman, No 11-965 (January 14, 2014), the U.S. Supreme Court stepped into the murky waters of jurisdiction, with a decision that will almost certainly limit the jurisdictions in which mass torts and other cases are filed.

In this matter, the Court noted that there are two types of jurisdiction: specific jurisdiction and general jurisdiction. Specific jurisdiction encompasses cases in which the lawsuit arises out of or relates to the defendant’s contacts with the forum. General jurisdiction applies when a foreign corporation’s continuous corporate operations within a state are so substantial and of such a nature as to justify suit against it on causes of action arising from dealings entirely distinct from those activities. When, as here, the event underlying the litigation did not arise in the jurisdiction where the suit was filed, and the corporation is not incorporated in the jurisdiction and the jurisdiction is not its principal place of business, a Court may not exercise jurisdiction over the action.

In Estate of McCall v. United States of America, No SC11-1148 (Fla., March 13, 2014), the Florida Supreme Court ruled that Florida’s statutory cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice actions, Fla. Stat. § 766.118, violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Florida Constitution.

In this landmark decision, the Florida Supreme Court concluded that the state’s statutory caps on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Florida Constitution. The case arose from the tragic death of Michelle Everett McCall, a pregnant 20-year-old Air Force dependent who was admitted to the hospital with severe preeclampsia. Labor was induced, and McCall delivered her child vaginally. McCall lost a significant amount of blood and did not deliver the placenta after delivery. Thereafter, she went into shock and cardiac arrest never regained consciousness and passed away. Her estate filed a wrongful death and medical malpractice complaint against the United States in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida. Following a bench trial, the court determined that the petitioners’ economic damages, or financial losses, amounted to $980,462.40. The court also awarded noneconomic damages of $2 million, including $500,000 for Ms. McCall’s son and $750,000 for each of her parents. The court limited the recovery of wrongful death noneconomic damages to $1 million under section 766.118(2), Florida Statutes (2005), Fla. Stat. § 766.118, Florida’s statutory cap on wrongful death non-economic damages in medical malpractice claims.  The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed. Because there was no Florida ruling on the constitutionality of cap, the Court certified four questions to the Florida Supreme Court, which rephrased them as one: “Does the statutory cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages, Fla. Stat. § 766.118, violate the right to equal protection under Article I, Section 2 of the Florida Constitution?”

The Court then held that the cap on wrongful death non-economic damages violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Florida Constitution under the rational basis test, stating:

“The statutory cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages fails because it imposes unfair and illogical burdens on injured parties when an act of medical negligence gives rise to multiple claimants. In such circumstances, medical malpractice claimants do not receive the same rights to full compensation because of arbitrarily diminished compensation for legally cognizable claims. Further, the statutory cap on wrongful death noneconomic 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 limited its holding to wrongful death claims rather than to personal injury claims in general. Presumably, this decision will be cited in other jurisdictions in which efforts continue to limit non-economic damages.