Florida High Court Upholds Florida's Birth Injury Compensation Plan (NICA)


Last term, the Florida Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a state plan that provides up to $100,000 to the parents or legal guardians of an infant found to have sustained a birth-related neurological injury.  See Samples v. Florida Birth-Related Neurological Injury Compensation Ass’n, 114 So. 3d 912 (Fla. 2013) (click here to view the slip opinion).  In so doing, the supreme court agreed with the lower appellate court’s decision (click here to view this decision) and answered the following certified question in the negative:  “Does the limitation in section 766.31(1)(b)1., Florida, Statutes, of a single award of $100,000 to both parents violate the Equal Protection Clause of the United States and Florida Constitutions?”

The Plan

The Plan, regulated by §§ 766.301-.316, Florida Statutes, was enacted to stabilize and reduce malpractice insurance premiums for obstetricians.  To further this goal, the Plan established a limited system of compensation irrespective of fault for certain catastrophic birth-related injuries that result in unusually high costs for custodial care and rehabilitation.  Whether claims are covered by the Plan is determined in an administrative proceeding.

The Decision

The petitioners’ challenge to the Plan centered around its $100,000 cap of a parental award regardless of whether there was one parent or two parents involved in the claim.  The supreme court rejected all three constitutional challenges to the Plan—it found that it did not violate equal protection guarantees and the right of access to courts and found that it was not unconstitutionally vague. Specifically, the Court found the following on each challenge: 

•           Equal Protection: The parental award provision does not treat similarly situated persons   differently because all people within the statutory classification of “parents” are treated equally in that all “parents”—whether applying for an award singly or jointly—can receive no more than $100,000.  Limiting the parental award to $100,000 per claim—as opposed to per parent—is rationally related to maintaining “the actuarial soundness of the Plan.”

•           Vagueness:  Because the parental award provision does not require or forbid conduct, the void-for-vagueness doctrine does not apply in this context.

•           Access to Courts:  The Plan’s no-fault compensation scheme provides a reasonable alternative remedy to parents’ right to access the courts for redress of their child’s neurological birth-related injury.

Three justices dissented from the majority.  Justices Perry, Pariente and Quince believed that the parental award provision violated equal protection.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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