Florida hospitals seek 'sovereign immunity' for ER staff

A new bill wending its way through the Florida Legislature could give sovereign immunity to the state's emergency rooms (ERs), limiting damages from medical malpractice lawsuits to $200,000 per incident for ER physicians and other workers including nurses and paramedics, reports the Orlando Business Journal.

Currently, 34 Florida hospitals that are either owned by the state or a local government, or located in a special tax district, enjoy sovereign immunity for their ER staff. (Sovereign immunity generally restricts damages for which government employees or agencies can be held liable.) The Emergency Health Care Providers Bill (Senate Bill 1474/House Bill 791) would extend sovereign immunity to 205 additional Florida hospitals with an ER.

The ER ranks as the third most common source of Florida's medical malpractice claims, according to state records. In 2008, ER malpractice claims comprised 13 percent (436) of the 3,336 malpractice claims filed in Florida.

The Florida Hospital Association and Florida Medical Association both support the bill. The state's liability climate hinders recruitment of emergency providers and on-call specialists, and the fact that ERs must provide care without regard to a patient's ability to pay makes ER care similar to a government service, they contend. The bill would "lower exposure another notch," says Rich Morrison, regional vice president for Florida Hospital in Orlando.

If ER patients are awarded damages above the statutory limit prescribed in the bill, the state may assume financial responsibility, according to an analysis by the Florida Senate. In other words, the state would be required to pay for errors made by private hospitals and doctors, contend the bill's opponents. 

Florida might spend millions defending claims under this bill, notes Clancey Bounds, a malpractice attorney with Bounds Gonzalez in Winter Park, Fla. "You're talking about a massive undertaking by the state, while normally private corporations handle this burden."

The Florida Senate's Health Regulation committee approved the Republican-sponsored bill on March 4; it is now in the Banking and Insurance committee.

To learn more about the Florida bill:
- read the Orlando Business Journal article