By: Florida Supreme Court
Source: Florida Supreme Court. Fassoulas v. Ramey, 450 So 2nd 822 (Fla. 1984). Reprinted in Hall, Kermit L., William M. Wiecek, and Paul Finkelman, ed. American Legal History: Cases and Materials. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, 508–509.
About the Organization: The Supreme Court of Florida was created soon after Florida's incorporation as a state in 1845. Initially, the justices were the circuit court justices, but the supreme court was given its own justices in 1851. As of 2003 the justices are appointed by the legislature to serve six-year terms, and the chief justice is chosen by the justices of the court.
In the United States, the practice of medicine has greatly changed over the years. Originally, most doctors worked by themselves and were general practitioners. During the middle and late twentieth century, doctors began to specialize more. This meant that a patient no longer had only one doctor, decreasing the personal ties between the doctor and patient and increasing the probability of a lawsuit. Doctors also have steadily increased their rate of success, and the public is aware of this fact. Often, when a medical procedure fails, the patient wants someone to blame. Many in the public also know that all doctors have malpractice insurance. Thus, a faceless insurance company rather than the doctor is the one which compensates the patient in the event of a lawsuit.
Changes in the legal profession have also promoted more lawsuits. Lawyers now take cases on a contingency fee basis, which means that they take a percentage of any settlement or judgment without requiring the client to pay legal fees up front. In the eyes of many critics, this system encourages specious suits and quick settlements. Specialists in personal injury, or tort law, know personal injury law, which makes filing lawsuits easier. One sub-specialty related to tort law is medical malpractice.
In Florida, the Fassoulases did not want any more children because their two previous children had been born with birth defects, so John had a vasectomy from Dr. Ramey. The vasectomy failed, and the Fassoulases had two more children. They sued for malpractice and won, and the case was appealed to the Florida Supreme Court.
The court upheld the lower court's verdict, but reduced the judgment for the Fassoulases, who were only allowed to recover the "extraordinary" expenses of raising a child with birth defects. Their experience is typical of many who win medical malpractice and tort judgments, then see their awards reduced on appeal. Rarely do these modifications make the front-page news.
Cases like this one bring into relief the ongoing struggle between law and medicine. On the one hand, doctors blame the large number of malpractice suits on the legal profession. On the other hand, a recent study found that 50 percent of malpractice lawsuits are filed against 6 percent of the doctors, suggesting that in many cases, doctors bring malpractice suits upon themselves. While the legal profession may have incentive to increase the number of medical malpractice suits filed, Fassoulas v. Ramey demonstrates that not all of these suits are without merit—many awards are reduced on appeal, and real issues need to be addressed by the medical community as well.
Primary Source: Fassoulas v. Ramey [excerpt]
SYNOPSIS: The court first discusses the vasectomy performed and how two children were born after this procedure. It then discusses the suit and the findings of the trial court. The court rules that a parent cannot be damaged by the birth of a normal and healthy child and also cannot be damaged by the normal "everyday" expenses of raising a child with birth defects. The court concludes by holding that the parents can recover only the extra costs of raising the child with birth defects.
Per curiam. . .
Plaintiffs, Edith and John Fassoulas, were married and had two children, both of whom had been born with severe congenital abnormalities. After much consideration, they decided not to have any more children due to the fear of having another physically deformed child and the attendant high cost of medical care. They then decided that John would undergo a vasectomy. This medical procedure was performed in January 1974 by defendant, Dr. Ramey. However, due to the negligence of the defendant in performing the operation, in giving medical advice concerning residual pockets of sperm, and in examining and judging the viability of sperm samples, Edith twice became pregnant and gave birth to two children. The first of these, Maria, was born in November 1974 and had many congenital deformities. Roussi, the second of the post-vasectomy children and the fourth Fassoulas child, was born in September 1976 with a slight physical deformity which was corrected at birth; he is now a normal, healthy child.
The plaintiffs sued Dr. Ramey and his clinic in tort based on medical malpractice for the two "wrongful births." They sought as damages Edith's past and future lost wages, her anguish and emotional distress at twice becoming pregnant, her loss of the society, companionship and consortium of her husband, John's mental anguish and emotional distress, his loss of the society, companionship and consortium of his wife, medical and hospital expenses and the expenses for the care and upbringing of the two new children until the age of twenty-one.
At trial, the jury found in favor of the plaintiffs, finding the defendant 100% negligent with reference to Maria and 50% negligent with reference to Roussi. The plaintiffs were found to be comparatively negligent as to the birth of Roussi. Damages were assessed in the amount of $250,000 for the birth of Maria and $100,000 for the birth of Roussi, the latter sum being reduced to $50,000 because of the plaintiff's comparative negligence.…
The rule in Florida is that "a parent cannot be said to have been damaged by the birth and rearing of a normal, healthy child." "[I]t has been imbedded in our law for centuries that the father and now both parents or legal guardians of a child have the sole obligation of providing the necessaries in raising the child, whether the child be wanted or unwanted." "The child is still the child of the parents, not the physician, and it is the parents' legal obligation, not the physician's, to support the child." For public policy reasons, we decline to allow rearing damages for the birth of a healthy child.
The same reasoning forcefully and correctly applies to the ordinary, everyday expenses associated with the care and upbringing of a physically or mentally deformed child. We likewise hold as a matter of law that ordinary rearing expenses for a defective child are not recoverable as damages in Florida.
We agree with the district court below that an exception exists in the case of special upbringing expenses associated with a deformed child. Special medical and educational expenses, beyond normal rearing costs, are often staggering and quite debilitating to a family's financial and social health; "in-deed the financial and emotional drain associated with raising such a child is often overwhelming to the affected parents." There is no valid policy argument against parents being recompensed for these costs of extraordinary care in raising a deformed child to majority. We hold these special up-bringing costs associated with a deformed child to be recoverable.
[The court allowed only the extraordinary rearing costs associated with Maria; it permitted nothing for the birth of Roussi.]
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