Recently, the Florida Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a statute which caps non-economic damages (which, in Florida, includes claims of pain and suffering and mental anguish, among others) that can be awarded where medical negligence results in personal injury or death. The statute in question limited such damages to $500,000 in some cases, and $1 million in more egregious cases. Decisions like this have a tendency to affect other appellate courts, especially those nearby. It is also of interest to our firm, which actively practices in Florida. Given Alabama’s experience with issues like this, however, it does not look too likely the Alabama Supreme Court will follow Florida’s lead.
The Florida Supreme Court ruled the cap unconstitutional on Florida equal-protection grounds. Alabama has been around this block before, having had its own non-economic damages cap struck down on equal protection grounds. See Moore v. Mobile Infirmary Ass’n, 592 So. 2d 156 (Ala. 1993). That decision came, however, during a bizarre 22-year period where the Court recognized a “phantom” equal protection clause that was actually nowhere to be found within the state Constitution. See Ex parte Melof, 735 So. 2d 1172 (Ala. 1999). The Court has since retreated from those decisions, and today acknowledges there is no Alabama equal protection clause. See Melof, supra. Thus, there is little real concern that the current damages cap will be struck down on Alabama equal protection grounds.
Alabama’s damages cap statute, Ala. Code 1975, § 6-11-21, was revised in 1999, but the section number was not changed at that time. Some legal research software displays a warning that the statute has been ruled unconstitutional, pointing to Henderson v. Alabama Power Co., 627 So. 2d 878 (Ala. 1993). This is not currently a concern, for two reasons. First, the logic of Henderson seems to have been been gutted, Ex parte Apicella, 809 So. 2d 865 (Ala. 2001), even though no decision specifically says so in the civil context. Second, the version that was ruled unconstitutional in Henderson was completely rewritten in 1999, and no portion of the revised statute has been declared unconstitutional.
The moral of the story seems to be that while you never say “never,” there is reason to believe Alabama’s current damages caps are probably safe from equal-protection (and right-to-trial-by-jury) attacks.