Florida justices reject medical malpractice agreement in patient’s death

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Seal of The Supreme Court of the State of Florida

Seal of The Supreme Court of the State of Florida

Thursday, June 20, 2013: The Florida Supreme Court has ruled for the first time that an agreement between a physician and a patient requiring the patient to arbitrate their medical malpractice claim and significantly limit the damages they can recover is unenforceable.  Arbitration of malpractice claims has long been an option; what is significant about this decision is that a physician cannot create their own set of unique rules to dictate how arbitration will take place and how much money the patient can potentially receive.   See: SC11-1258 – Donna Franks, Etc. v. Gary John Bowers, M.D., et al to read the entire decision. 

Related Blog: Part 1: Things to Know About Arbitration

The case involved claims for wrongful death and medical malpractice resulting  from the death of Joseph Franks who received medical care  from Dr. Bowers and North Florida Surgeons. Prior to receiving medical care from Dr. Bowers, Mr. Franks signed a document which stated that œany negligence claim relating to the diagnosis, treatment, or care of Patient ¦shall be resolved by arbitration.  It also stated that the patient’s claim would be limited to a recovery that would max out at $250,000.00 and that the patient would still have to prove that the doctor was responsible for the injury.  Please note, Florida already had a law addressing arbitration in the medical malpractice setting.  Chapter 766 of the Florida statutes, entitled œMedical Malpractice and Related Matters, provides for voluntary and court ordered arbitration of malpractice claims but not mandatory binding arbitration. The voluntary arbitration has limitations on the recovery of non-economic damages but does not allow the health care provider to contest liability. Accordingly, it is not often used.  In addition, the law would entitle a patient like Franks to receive a maximum of $1 million if the case proceeded to court without either party seking arbitration or if Dr. Bowers and North Florida Surgeons refused to proceed with  arbitration.  Dr. Bowers’ agreement took out all of the incentives to arbitration that were provided in Florida law.  
 
Related Blog: Part 2- The Truth About Mandatory Arbitration

Following the death of Mr. Franks, the representative of his estate filed a medical malpractice lawsuit. Based on the document Mr. Franks signed before treatment, Dr. Bowers and North Florida Surgeons asked the trial court to dismiss the lawsuit and compel arbitration. The trial court granted the motion to compel arbitration and required the parties to submit their claims to an arbitrator rather than a judge or jury. The trial court held that, by signing the agreement, the patient had agreed to œmandatory arbitrationand the terms of this particular arbitration agreement were binding. The court of appeal affirmed, saying that the trial court œproperly construed and applied the arbitration clause.  Consequently, Mr. Franks’ estate appealed to the highest court in Florida, The Florida Supreme Court. Attorney Thomas S. Edwards, Jr. went in front of the Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday, October 3, 2012 and argued that the agreement was in direct violation of Florida law. 

Related Blog: Nursing Home Arbitration agreements apply to wrongful death claims 

The Florida Supreme Court  agreed with Mr. Franks’ arguments  The Court  found the damages clause of the agreement violated Florida law and the parties of this lawsuit needed to proceed under the medical malpractices laws of Florida.   As Justice Pariente wrote, “Specifically, this financial agreement forces the patient to fore-go his or her right to pursue a claim in a court of law and limits the amount of recoverable damages ” without requiring the defendant to admit liability or to give up any other rights in return…Conversely, the financial agreement under review relieves the defendant of the burden and expense of proceeding to a jury trial and still limits the amount of damages that must be paid ” without providing any benefit to the patient in return.”

 This is true justice for the people of Florida.   Health care providers cannot create agreements  that  severely limit the ability of an injured patient to receive  compensation while requiring their patients to give up their right to trial by jury in order to receive treatement .

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