Gov. Ron DeSantis recently announced that his administration would partner with state lawmakers to tackle lawsuit abuse in the upcoming legislative session. This is welcome news for Floridians suffering from inflated prices and business owners targeted by frivolous litigation.
But while leaders should be commended for their aggressive actions against this longstanding problem, they must ensure that adding transparency to medical damages in litigation is prioritized to ensure accuracy and fairness in personal injury cases.
For too long, predatory trial lawyers in Florida have frequently misused what are commonly referred to as “letters of protection” to increase the cost of medical bills in personal injury cases. These agreements allow healthcare providers to delay billing the patient’s insurance company directly for the medical services they provide until after any potential settlement or judgment in the patient’s personal injury case. Letters of protection act as a blindfold concealing the true cost of a plaintiff’s medical damages from a jury so that they only hear the “sticker price.’
While letters of protection can be a useful tool for patients without medical insurance, Florida trial lawyers have been advising their clients to use these agreements even if they have insurance, which can lead to unnecessary and inflated medical expenses. This deceptive tactic has allowed plaintiffs to claim medical damages that are tens of thousands of dollars higher than what they would have actually paid had their insurance companies been involved.
This type of exploitation only serves to benefit greedy trial lawyers and the medical providers that may be complicit in such practices. If trial lawyers are able to artificially inflate the settlement amount for their client, they receive a greater share of the full settlement as their legal fee. The healthcare provider is paid a fee that is well above the standard market rate, which can add up to a significant amount when dealing with expensive medical treatments. Meanwhile, the plaintiff is left with a diminished portion of the settlement, even though these medical costs could have been covered by their insurance.
Ultimately, the rest of us are stuck paying higher insurance premiums and higher costs for everyday needs—like gas and groceries—as a result of these dubious practices.
Regardless, the primary purpose of damages awarded by Florida courts isn’t to make anyone rich. It’s to account for the financial impact that an offending action has caused a plaintiff. If a jury isn’t legally allowed to know the actual damages incurred, then our courts cannot produce those just decisions.
The Sunshine State has been keeping judges and juries in the dark about medical bills for too long, and we’ve all ended up paying the price. Beyond perverting our civil justice system, this lack of transparency in medical billing contributes to a backlog of cases that delays justice for victims and contributes to settlement inflation, in turn causing higher insurance prices for consumers. It’s worth mentioning that this problem is not unique to Florida, but other states have seen and properly addressed the abuse.
It’s long past time for lawmakers in Tallahassee to make Florida the next state to tackle transparency in damages. I could go on about all the minute adjustments that could be made to alleviate the transparency problem, but the basic solution is straightforward – the law must prohibit the unnecessary shielding of accurate medical damages from judges and juries.
Lawmakers can transform Florida’s legal system from one that has long been considered a “Judicial Hellhole” into a national leader of fair, consistent justice. Doing so means riding the wave of courage exhibited by lawmakers in the December special session to the passage of a generational reform bill.
Voters must pay close attention to what happens over the next few weeks and whether lawmakers deliver reform or buckle to special interests. There can be no excuses this time around. It’s time to deliver a long-overdue reform that benefits everyone who wants a fair civil justice system.
Jim Maxwell is the vice chair of Floridians for Government Accountability
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