A recent Daily Business Review story, “Florida Supreme Court Asked to Review Limit on Attorney Fees,” reports that the Fourth District Court of Appeal asked the Florida Supreme Court to decide whether it's constitutional to limit attorney fees awarded in cases against the state government.
The case grows out of a sovereign immunity provision of state law. Whenever a plaintiff wins a tort case against a Florida state agency, state law caps damages at $200,000. To lift that cap, the legislature must agree to the higher payment.
Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley is seeking a $2.5 million contingency fee—rather than $100,000 approved by the Legislature—for working since 1999 on a medical malpractice lawsuit over brain damage during the birth of a child at a public hospital. The state appeals court ruled against the personal injury firm in July, saying the West Palm Beach firm was entitled to the lower amount under two restrictive legislative actions.
Searcy Denney represented the family of Aaron Edwards, who suffered a catastrophic brain injury when he was born in 1997. The firm secured a $28.3 million jury award for Edwards and $2.3 million for his parents. It represented the family in a five-week jury trial in 2007 against Lee Memorial Health System, which operates the public hospital in Fort Myers where Edwards was born.
The case went to trial but hospital liability was limited to $200,000 under the state's sovereign immunity law, which also caps attorney fees at 25 percent of the recovery.
The firm petitioned a guardianship court to award it $2.5 million, applying a 25 percent cap in state law to the $10 million not put into a special needs trust for Edwards. It argued that the legislature's fee order was an unconstitutional impairment of their contract with the Edward's family. It said it put more than 7,000 hours into the case and lobbying for the legislature bill and incurred $500,000 in costs.