Florida Supreme Court Holds Retroactive Application of Medical Criteria Unconstitutional

American Optical Corp. v. Spiewak

July 8, 2011

In a decision released July 8, 2011, the Florida Supreme Court ruled (5-2) that retroactive application of the medical criteria of Florida’s Asbestos and Silica Compensation Fairness Act (“ASCFA” or “the Act”) to claims that accrued before the Act’s effective date is unconstitutional. The Court further ruled that the rest of the Act is not severable from its medical criteria and thus cannot be applied to pre-Act plaintiffs at all.

The Florida legislature enacted ASCFA in 2005, and specifically directed that the Act was to apply retroactively as well as prospectively.  With certain exceptions (for mesothelioma and a few other types of claims), the Act prescribed prima facie medical criteria that asbestos plaintiffs had to meet to proceed with their claims.  These criteria required evidence of impairment and of a connection between the impairment and asbestos exposure. In addition, the Act had various other provisions applicable to all asbestos cases, including some procedural requirements and an abolition of punitive damages in asbestos cases.

On appeal from a Palm Beach judge’s dismissal of 13 pre-Act lawsuits pursuant to the Act’s prima facie criteria, Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled that application of the Act to claims that accrued before its effective date was unconstitutional. This decision conflicted with a prior decision in which Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal had upheld retroactive application of the Act.

The Florida Supreme Court granted review of the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s decision and sustained it.  The Supreme Court ruled that retroactive application of the Act’s prima facie medical criteria to plaintiffs whose claims accrued pre-Act deprives such plaintiffs of their vested rights in their claims and thus violates the due process clause of the Florida Constitution. The Court ruled that the Act’s requirement that plaintiffs present evidence of impairment, as defined in the Act, is unconstitutional because the common law allowed a plaintiff to pursue an asbestos claim without such a showing.  According to the Court, the plaintiffs had an “actual injury” when asbestos fibers “were inhaled and became embedded in the lungs of the plaintiffs without their knowledge or consent.”

This decision applies to the plaintiffs in the specific cases under review and to “other claimants who had accrued causes of action for asbestos-related disease pending on the effective date of the Act.”  As indicated above, moreover, the Supreme Court ruled that the medial criteria cannot be severed from the rest of the Act, meaning that no provision of the Act will apply to pre-Act cases.

For the present time, the Act will continue to be applicable to claims that accrued after its effective date of July 1, 2005.  The Court addressed retroactivity only, and ruled that the Act was unconstitutional “as applied” to plaintiffs with pre-Act claims.   

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