Dr. Allan Dinnerstein, who had a private practice and also worked at Bethesda Memorial Hospital, was a named defendant in a medical malpractice brought by the family of Ludana Prophete, a deceased patient. Dinnerstein also participated in a program that provided care at no cost to indigent patients. Physicians choosing to volunteer for this state-managed program are shielded from civil liability stemming from their work with the poor under the concept of sovereign immunity.
Prophete was receiving prenatal medical care at a Palm Beach County Health Department facility after experiencing significant pain in her abdominal area. Dr. Dinnerstein was the on-call physician at the time of her visit. He briefly examined Prophete and soon released her after determining she was not having any serious medical problem. Roughly three days later she returned to the clinic and was given two prescriptions and released. The next day she returned again complaining of pain and released, as again Dinnerstein detected no major concerns. Prophete was found dead several days later.
Dinnerstein sought protection under sovereign immunity. Counsel for the plaintiff alleged that Ms. Prophete was not seeking treatment at the time as a patient of the volunteer program and had not consented to participation in it. The case was soon escalated to the 4th District Court of Appeals. Judge Carolyn Taylor and two others found that Prophete “was not informed of and did not consent to participate” in the free volunteer program. They ruled that Dinnerstein’s medical care for Prophete was not subject to the immunity provisions.
Medical Malpractice in Florida
Florida statute allows for claims of medical malpractice against medical providers who are alleged to have demonstrated negligence that led to injuries. The plaintiff must show the medical professional breached the current standards for care established in the profession. This failure occurs when the professional fails to practice according to the proper levels of skill based on the circumstances.
Pure Comparative Fault
The doctrine of comparative fault is recognized in Florida law. This means that upon receiving an award for damages the actual amount of the award received is reduced by any percentage of faults that the party contributed. For example, assume a plaintiff is awarded $100,000 and was found to have contributed 10% to the incident that caused the injury. The plaintiff would actually only retain $90,000 of the total award. Roughly 12 states in the U.S. recognize this doctrine, which is often criticized because a party may retain damages regardless of the amount of fault they contributed. Most jurisdictions only allow a party to retain damages if they contributed less than 50 or 51% of the total allocation.
Florida Caps on Damages
Courts in Florida have been wavering back and forth regarding the legality of limits (caps) on damage awards.
- The Florida Supreme Court in 2014 reversed a law that placed a cap on awards for non-economic damages in cases of wrongful death.
- Florida’s Supreme Court also found the $500,000 cap that limited awards for noneconomic damages was also unconstitutional in cases that did not result in death.
- Limitations on damages were implemented in cases brought against the state (governmental entities) of $200,000 per person and $300,000 per event.