TALLAHASSEE — The Supreme Court refused Thursday to adopt a state rule reflected in a law that creates restrictions on doctors who can testify during medical malpractice trials, agreeing it would have a chilling effect on the ability to find expert witnesses.
The law was a priority for Republican Senate President Don Gaetz and signed by Republican Gov. Rick Scott. It was designed to help doctors defend themselves in malpractice cases. Critics said it would make it more difficult for victims to seek compensation for injuries caused by doctors' mistakes.
In part, the law requires expert witnesses who are called to testify against a defendant doctor to practice the exact same kind of medicine and not just be in similar fields. It also limits judges' ability to use their discretion to qualify or disqualify expert witnesses in malpractice cases.
Like they did before about the law itself, groups representing doctors and lawyers disagreed on the court's opinion.
Jeff Scott, a lawyer for the Florida Medical Association, said the law still stands and the court's opinion was simply declining to accept the law as a procedural rule of the court. But it was not struck down as part of a legal challenge of the law.
"Their action today should have no effect. It's in statute," Scott said. "I don't think the Supreme Court do an end run on that."
Gary Farmer, the immediate past president of the Florida Justice Association, disagreed.
"What they can say and did say is this law is unconstitutional. That's exactly what they said today. The FMA needs to retain some good lawyers to read the opinion for them," Farmer said.
The Florida Bar Board of Governor's voted 34-5 to recommend the court not amend the Florida Evidence Code to reflect the new law, saying that it was unconstitutional. The court agreed.
Gaetz wouldn't comment on the opinion.