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Florida Supreme Court Entertains Quick End to Medical Malpractice Lawsuit

The Florida Supreme Court recently allowed three professional associations to file an amicus brief supporting the efforts of two defendant hospitals to bring a quick end to a medical malpractice claim. 

Dani Alexis Ryskamp, J.D.

Written by
— Updated on October 4, 2022

Florida Supreme Court Entertains Quick End to Medical Malpractice Lawsuit

The brief raises broader questions about the role of experts in Florida medical malpractice lawsuits.

The Case and the Court’s Decision

In 2016, plaintiff Laurie Carmody received cervical disc fusion surgery via Shands Teaching Hospital and Clinics. This hospital is part of the University of Florida system (UF). Sometime later, Carmody filed a notice of a planned medical malpractice lawsuit against UF and Shands. This was based on an infection related to the surgery. The plaintiff alleges a medical malpractice action on the part of two Shands employees. The plaintiff argued that a neurosurgeon and an advanced registered nurse practitioner caused the infection.

Florida medical malpractice law requires a notice of a medical malpractice claim to be accompanied by a supporting affidavit from a medical expert. Carmody’s notice included an affidavit from a physician whose experience included work in internal medicine, cardiology, and hospitalist positions.

UF and Shands filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the plaintiff’s expert wasn’t qualified to opine on neurology-related issues. However, the trial court allowed the case to proceed. The trial court found that the plaintiff’s expert was qualified to provide an expert opinion on the contributions the advanced registered nurse practitioner made.

UF and Shands appealed to the 1st District Court of Appeal. There, a panel held that appellate courts may not “address non-procedural disputes concerning the qualifications of claim-corroborating experts.” However, the panel acknowledged that other Florida appellate courts had reached different conclusions. Seeking resolution, UF and Shands brought the case to the Florida Supreme Court.

The state Supreme Court allowed the Florida Hospital Association, the Florida Medical Association, and the American Medical Association to file an amicus brief exploring the broader impacts of a ruling on medical malpractice law in Florida.

What Happens Next?

As the Florida Supreme Court noted in its opinion granting certiorari, certiorari is a disfavored means of challenging a trial court’s denial of a motion to dismiss in most instances. However, the Supreme Court also noted that “Florida’s courts have recognized exceptions to this rule with respect to the medical malpractice pre-suit requirements of chapter 766—a law designed to avoid meritless claims.”

The plaintiff’s lawyers filed a brief filed in April 2022. In the brief, the plaintiff’s lawyers argued that the state Supreme Court should let the lower court rulings stand. The trial court reviewed the motion to dismiss and the plaintiff’s expert’s participation. As such, the plaintiff’s attorneys argued that the trial court fulfilled its gatekeeping duty under the state’s Medical Malpractice Act.

Various Florida appellate courts have come to varying conclusions on their own role in evaluating this gatekeeping function. The state Supreme Court plays a role in considering these various conclusions and setting a uniform rule for Florida courts.

Impacts on Future Medical Malpractice Claims in Florida

In its opinion granting cert and in its willingness to accept an amicus brief from the AMA and other professional groups, the Florida Supreme Court has signaled its willingness to discuss the “gatekeeping function” of trial courts at the outset of medical malpractice claims but also the underlying reasons for the affidavit requirement.

The FHA, FMA, and AMA seek to emphasize these underlying purposes. They focus on a specific provision in Florida law. This provision requires the plaintiff’s medical expert to practice in the “same specialty” as a prospective medical malpractice defendant. They argue that this “same specialty” requirement helps reduce the number of frivolous claims. It does this by requiring that a provider’s actions be assessed by another practitioner in the same field.

Like other states, Florida’s medical malpractice laws require a showing that a defendant failed to meet the standard of care. The professional associations’ argument, in essence, is that only another practitioner in the same specialty can adequately assess whether a provider met the standard of care for that specialty.

If the state Supreme Court rules in favor of UF and Shands, Florida medical malpractice attorneys will need to make more tailored choices when matching experts to cases for notice purposes. If the state Supreme Court rules in favor of the plaintiff, however, these requirements may remain somewhat looser.

The Impact of the Ruling

The Court’s ruling may also have an impact on how lawyers handle appeals in future medical malpractice cases. If the Court upholds the 1st District Court of Appeals’ stance that appellate courts cannot scrutinize trial court gatekeeping, attorneys will have one less avenue of recourse if a trial court improperly accepts or rejects an expert’s affidavit. If the state Supreme Court finds that appellate courts can examine experts’ qualifications at the notice stage, however, attorneys may find this avenue remains open. But its lanes may be narrower.

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