Siding with the University of Miami, an appeals court Wednesday upheld the constitutionality of a 2011 state law designed to shield some medical schools and doctors from liability in medical-malpractice cases.
A three-judge panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal rejected a series of constitutional arguments raised by attorneys for plaintiffs who alleged malpractice by University of Miami medical-school doctors working at Jackson Memorial Hospital.
The 2011 law extended sovereign immunity — a legal concept that generally shields government agencies from costly lawsuits — to private universities that reach agreements to provide services at teaching hospitals. The University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine subsequently entered an agreement with the Miami-Dade County Public Health Trust, a government agency that operates Jackson Memorial.
Wednesday’s ruling involved two lawsuits stemming from incidents in 2012 and 2014 at Jackson Memorial.
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The 2012 case stemmed from the death of newborn Noah Bean, whose mother, Latoya Bean, had been admitted to Jackson while pregnant after showing indications of the potentially dangerous condition preeclampsia. The baby died later after a series of circumstances that included a delay in the performance of a caesarean section, according to Wednesday’s ruling.
The other case was filed by Fernando Vallecillo, who was blinded in one eye during a surgical procedure related to a benign tumor on the side of his face, the ruling said.
After the lawsuits were filed, attorneys for the university and doctors argued that the cases should be dismissed because of the sovereign-immunity protections in the 2011 law. Circuit courts agreed with the argument, leading lawyers for Bean and Vallecillo to go to the 3rd District Court of Appeal.
In the appeals, the plaintiffs’ attorneys raised several issues, including contending that the 2011 law unconstitutionally expanded sovereign immunity and violated rights of equal protection, due process and access to courts.
For example, the ruling said the plaintiffs’ attorneys contended that the Legislature “cannot constitutionally expand immunity to the university and its employees and agents because they are not state actors subject to state control, they are not funded by the state, and the state is not on the hook for their liability.”
But the appeals court disagreed, pointing to earlier court rulings that approved extending sovereign immunity to private companies and employees. That included extending immunity to providers of medical services at a state-run children’s medical clinic and to a company that transported prison inmates.
The appeals court analyzed the agreement between the university and the Public Health Trust and said the university doctors were “agents of the trust while providing patient services to Vallecillo and Bean.”
“The 2011 agreement showed that the trust retained and exercised a degree of control over the university such that it created an agency relationship,” said the 25-page ruling, written by appeals-court Judge Robert Luck and joined by judges Kevin Emas and Ivan Fernandez. “Because the university was the trust’s agent for purposes of providing patient services at Jackson hospital, the Legislature’s decision to expand immunity ... to cover the university as the trust’s agent ... does not violate [the Florida Constitution].”