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Florida Appellate Court Upholds Legal Fee Cap in Birth Injury Claim

Lady Justice with ScalesFlorida’s 4th District Court of Appeal upheld a 2012 move by legislators that limits the fees collected by attorneys who won a birth injury lawsuit for their clients. The case was filed against a Southwest FL hospital which was found liable for a child’s severe brain damage that has left him with lifelong disabilities.

The appellate court panel, in a 2-1 ruling, said it was sympathetic to the plight of the West Palm Beach law firm which spent years representing the family in their malpractice litigation filed against Lee Memorial Health System. The law firm spent almost $500,000 during the legal battle and ultimately won a nearly $31 million jury verdict for the family.

Since the hospital was protected by state sovereign-immunity laws, the family needed lawmakers to pass a “claim” bill in order to recover more than $200,000. In 2012, the malpractice award was reduced to $15 million, and lawmakers included a stipulation that only $100,000 of the funds would be allotted to the attorneys.

After the defendant hospital put $10 million into a trust for the injured child, other law firms that collaborated in the case tried to collect $2.5 million given the previous contract with the family and a 25 percent fee-cap provision. However, the appeals court noted a Florida Supreme Court precedent and upheld the guardianship court’s original decision.

Legal fees capped in birth injury award

Judge Alan Forst and Judge Burton Conner wrote the majority opinion last Wednesday, stating, “We are sympathetic to the fact that the legislatively enacted attorneys’ fees cap in this case failed to cover even the $500,000 in appellants’ (legal) costs advanced… But our responsibility in this matter is to ensure that the claims bill passed by the legislative branch of government meets constitutional muster. … (The) Florida Supreme Court, in no uncertain terms, has held that the limitation of attorneys’ fees in a private relief act/claims bill ‘is a constitutionally permissible exercise of legislative authority and does not constitute an impairment of contractual obligations.’ ”

Not everyone on the panel agreed with this opinion. Chief Judge Cory Ciklin called the $100,000 legal fee limit “draconian,” arguing that such caps on contingency fees for birth injury lawyers could hamper legal options for families who otherwise could not afford representation.

“Thus, for those economically disadvantaged individuals who have been quantifiably injured at the hands of a clearly negligent party, an attorney who agrees to enter into a contingency fee agreement may be a victim’s only option. To that end, one would expect that contingency fee contracts are directly related to the constitutional right of access to courts together with ethical and moral obligations of lawyers. And in fact, they are,” wrote Judge Ciklin in his dissent.

Birth injuries render child permanently disabled

According to their lawsuit, the minor child suffered brain trauma during delivery at Lee Memorial back in 1997. His brain damage has left him with grave disabilities, which will require expensive medical care and rehabilitation. In 2007, jurors determined that Lee Memorial employees were negligent in their duties, and found for the plaintiffs.

While the $31 million verdict was reduced by half, the funds will ensure that the child and his family have the financial resources to pay for ongoing hospital bills and daily care needs.

  1. Health News Florida, Court Limits Fees on Birth-Injury Case

  2. Miami Herald, Court upholds limit on legal fees in birth-injury case