TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — For the first time on Monday, Florida senators debated a bill that could end what critics and impacted family members have long dubbed Florida's "free kill" law.
SB 248 aims to lift limitations that, for the past 33 years, have prevented some adult children or parents from suing a doctor or hospital if their unmarried parent or adult child dies over medical mistakes or negligence.
But it comes with what many families call a devastating and costly catch.
Sen. Clay Yarborough, R-Jacksonville, who first introduced the bill, filed an amendment Friday to end the law but added in caps, which means anyone who files a medical negligent claim against a Florida doctor would be limited to $500,000 per claimant and $750,000 if the case is against a "nonpractitioner" such as a hospital or medical office.
Yarborough called it a compromise that would help families seek justice but not at the expense of scaring away doctors from rising medical malpractice claims and costs, which was the law's original intent more than three decades ago.
Investigative reporter Katie LaGrone analyzed the law and found the state's wrongful death law has not resulted in lower malpractice claims or costs. There is also little evidence medical malpractice claims and costs have "scared" doctors away from Florida, which lawmakers have used as a reason to keep the law in place.
Yarborough on Monday introduced his bill in the Senate Committee on Judiciary, which he chairs, and started by acknowledging that the longstanding state law is a "clear injustice."
His bill prompted dozens of reactions, both for and against. Sen. Lauren Book, D-Davie, filed an amendment to Yarborough's amendment calling to strike the caps.
"I'm not sure that trading one injustice and limiting another is the right way to go," Book said.
Book has introduced bills to repeal the law in the past, but those bills were never heard.
Her amendment was quickly shot down.
Other insiders called Yarborough's amended bill a fair compromise, citing, without evidence, how caps help bring balance to medical malpractice claims.
Tampa-based attorney Andy Bolin represents the medical industry and spoke on behalf of the Florida Justice Reform, a lobbying group that supports tort reform.
"If we're to expand claimants, then there must be a counterbalance," he said.
Cindy Jenkins, whose 25-year-old daughter Taylor was unmarried and had no children when she died in a hospital after Jenkins said she had a brain bleed that went untreated for hours after she was rear-ended at a traffic light, believes a cap would just be another slap in the face since attorneys are unlikely to take a case that would yield such a low payout.
"For some reason, the goal of our legislators and the lobbyists who protect the hospitals, doctors and insurance companies is they don't want us to have justice administered fairly and impartially," she said.
"You cannot imagine the pain we suffer every day," said Belynda Warren, who lost her mother to medical negligence.
One couple brought their 13-month-old daughter to the podium to show lawmakers how the baby, who was born with two healthy hands, is now slowly losing all her fingers on one hand because her circulation was cut off while she was under medical care for an unrelated issue.
Advocates who oppose caps cited two medical negligent cases that involved caps and were deemed unconstitutional by Florida's Supreme Court. Yarborough said his amended bill calls for a different setup and felt confident it would clear any court battle.
Despite strong opposition from families, lawmakers voted to move Yarborough's bill forward, but not without acknowledging more changes may still be needed given what and who's at stake.
"We need to find a balance with this," Yarborough said. "I believe there is an openness to all sides, and I am open to ideas."
This is just the first hurdle. Two other bills on the topic have also been introduced in the House and Senate, but so far, they have not been scheduled for a hearing.