Disney, Publix Look to Cut Size of Lawsuit Awards for Injured Patrons

Two of Florida’s largest corporations are looking to save themselves and other frequently-sued companies millions by attempting to limit the size of medical damages awarded through civil lawsuits.

The goal of Walt Disney World and Publix Super Markets, according to an online article by the Orlando Sentinel, is to sway the state’s lawmakers to revise how medical damages are determined after a business is found liable for an accident. The proposed legislative changes, marketed as a package referred to as “Truth in Damages,” could save oft-sued companies millions per year.

Opposition from doctors, lawyers and some hospitals kept revisions to medical damages laws from making any waves in this year’s session of the legislature. The companies who back the proposed changes, however, plan to keep the issue front-and-center in 2014, a year some predict could be “pivotal,” as Republican Governor Rick Scott—a staunch opponent to personal injury lawsuits—is up for re-election. Many political analysts feel his opponent next year could be former governor—and current Morgan & Morgan attorney—Charlie Crist.

Businesses lobbying the state’s policy makers argue that the current civil suit award system has often been easily manipulated by adept trial lawyers and symptom-exaggerating doctors. In some cases, the latter, lobbyists say, may overstate the cost of medical services as well perform more treatment than necessary on injured patients, which could sway a jury to award a much higher amount in damages.

Many large businesses contend that, in addition to the somewhat unclear bottom line of healthcare costs, the process of how a judge decides the amount of a plaintiff’s medical damages is partially to blame for the millions upon millions paid to personal injury victims each year. In fact, according to records obtained by the Orlando Sentinel, Publix spent more than $37 million in 2012 alone defending itself against or settling civil suits, with roughly 80 percent of those costs coming from Florida.

Publix spent more than $37 million in 2012 alone defending itself against or settling civil suits.

Though the numbers can seem significantly inflated, the actual amounts doctors, hospitals and other healthcare professionals make from services rendered is often substantially less than the grand total on a medical bill. These lower rates, according to the article, are either federally mandated by programs such as Medicare or Medicaid or hashed out by health insurance providers. In a typical civil injury lawsuit, a jury will be told the amount a victim has been billed for medical care and not any final charges. Once the jury issues a verdict and awards damages, a trial judge will usually reduce the award to reflect the victim’s actual charges to prevent the plaintiff from gaining any unearned monetary windfall.

Businesses argue that this process prompts juries to award unusually large amounts for future medical bills and, in some cases, punitive damages. Additionally, many doctors will sign a “letter of protection” before a case goes to trial in which they agree not to collect payment from a patient until after the litigation is finished. Because of this, according to businesses, there are no charges that a judge could use to lower the amount of a jury’s damages award.

Opponents to the proposed changes accuse businesses or “trying to squeeze legal savings out of innocent victims” who were injured in the first place due to corporate negligence. The fallout from any proposed changes, lawyers and doctors argue, could see accident victims stuck with paying hefty bills themselves if a small lawsuit award turns out to be inadequate in the future.