Florida particularly has a problem with these kinds of lawsuits dominating our courtrooms. Our judges and courts are infamous for the massive damage awards they hand out to personal-injury claimants. However, the problem doesn’t stem from judges and juries, it comes directly from dubious trial lawyer tactics. I saw it first-hand as a member of the State Legislature and fought for tort reforms to help slow down runaway lawsuits.
That is because medical damages are often misrepresented when they are presented in a Florida court, for a few different reasons. The first is that juries are only allowed to see what a doctor has billed a patient for any injuries incurred. This standard misleads juries to think the costs of treatment are higher than their actual value. Why? Because doctors often bill for a higher amount than what they are willing to accept or what a patient will eventually pay for the treatment.
The other main reason for misrepresented medical costs here in Florida is that plaintiffs’ lawyers are allowed to create special agreements with medical providers called “letters of protection.” Basically, a letter of protection is a promise from the medical care provider to delay collecting payment until a lawsuit is done. This encourages doctors to sign on earlier in hopes for a larger payout in the end. Plainly, it feeds in to the differences between what a doctor bill is versus what they accept, as a letter of protection essentially eliminates the possibility of presenting what a doctor would end up accepting.
As these inflated costs weigh on the insurance providers that pay them out, they in turn force rate hikes on everyday citizens. Luckily, both problems have straightforward legislative solutions. My work as a Representative taught me that Floridians know lawsuit abuse is a problem, and they want it fixed. It is now up to current members of the Florida State Legislature to put their past shortcomings on this issue behind and act in the best interest of their constituents.
First, changes must be made to allow juries access to the amount medical providers actually accept for treatment costs. This would provide the transparency needed for juries to make informed decisions about the actual cost of damages, particularly since damages awarded often also include estimated costs of future care based on the current bills shown to juries.
Then, to prevent trial lawyers from showing juries misleading medical bill totals, the legislature should examine eliminating letters of protection. Rather than helping anyone involved, letters of protection are little more than a barrier to proper transparency to keep trials fair and informed. If they continue in their current form, they will be a tool for trial lawyers to exploit.
The path forward is clear, now it up to all of us to continue to tell our lawmakers we have had enough of these problems plaguing Florida courtrooms. The opportunity to fix them is here, and our elected officials need to pursue it head-on. As long as bloated personal-injury claims are allowed to dominate the court docket, insurance providers will continue to be forced to pay far more than warranted, and costs will rise for us all.
Don Brown is a former member of the Florida State House who was first elected in 2001. He represented the state's 5th House district.