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Bill revamps what jurors can be told about medical expenses in negligence cases

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Sen. Jeff Brandes

Sen. Jeff Brandes

Jurors would be told what a plaintiff’s actual paid medical expenses were and what prevailing medical-care rates are — for unpaid health care — rather than what the plaintiff was billed under a bill approved in the Senate Judiciary Committee March 9.

SB 846 by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, revives the effort in recent legislative sessions to change what jurors are told about medical expenses for plaintiffs in personal injury and wrongful death cases.

Where medical expenses have been paid, the amount recoverable would be limited to the amount paid, regardless of the source.

With unpaid medical bills, the amount presented could not exceed the amount that would be paid by the patient’s health insurance. If the plaintiff is not insured, then the amount could not exceed what is normally charged by the provider for those services or other providers in that geographic area.

It would bypass the collateral source rule by allowing introduction of evidence on payments of past medical costs.

“What we’re seeking to do here is…provide the jury with relevant testimony about what has been paid in the past for similar types of services. That’s all,” Brandes said.

Supporters of the bill said it would prevent inflated damages being paid, especially when plaintiffs may settle their medical expenses for less than the original charge. Opponents said it could leave injured plaintiffs unpaid for medical expenses and that medical providers charge more when they may have to wait years for payment and run the risk of not being paid at all if the plaintiff loses the suit.

The committee rejected an amendment from Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, that would have required the jury to be told about any insurance the defendant has that could pay medical costs. She said that would level the playing field under the bill and would only come into play after a verdict when expenses were being determined.

“Jurors should get all relevant information,” Polsky said. “….Why would the health insurance of the victim come into play if they had to seek care from someone out of network, for example. You could say it has to come into play, then the defendant’s insurance should also come into play.”

Brandes opposed the amendment, saying, “How deep a defendant’s pockets are is totally irrelevant to determining a plaintiff’s damages for medical expenses…. What we’re trying to seek here is what are the valid medical expenses. That’s the goal…. Everything else is really not appropriate to be in front of the jury.”

On the main bill, Tiffany Faddis of the Florida Justice Association said defendants can already provide their own experts and other evidence on what is proper medical reimbursement.

“There is absolutely no need for this legislation,” she said. “What’s going to happen now with this very bad legislation is the jury is not going to be given that opportunity…to make a decision and award the proper medical expenses that the injured party is entitled to,” which in turn could lead the plaintiff still owing medical-care providers.

But Kenneth Armstrong, CEO of the Florida Truckers Association, called the bill “a life or death issue for our industry” because of high insurance rates sparked at least in part by “outlandish, unpaid medical bills that you and I know will never actually be paid in full.”

He said small and mid-size trucking firms are facing 40% to 50% annual increases in insurance rates.

“Insurers are bailing out and they won’t come back if you don’t do something to level this playing field,” Armstrong said. “Stopping these inflated medical claims is a huge step. If you don’t act, trucking companies have two choices, go out of business or hit their customers with huge price increases.”

SB 846 passed 7-3 and next goes to the Health Policy and Rules committees. Its House counterpart, HB 561 by Rep. Randy Maggard, R-Zephyrhills, has not been heard. It has been referred to the Civil Justice and Property Rights Subcommittee, the Insurance and Banking Subcommittee, and the Judiciary Committee.

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