Florida Slow to Punish Doctors for Medical Malpractice

If you plan to have surgery in Florida, make sure you do your research in selecting your surgeon. A disturbing number of Florida doctors have repeated allegations of medical malpractice and multiple million-dollar med mal lawsuit settlements involving claims of permanent injury and wrongful death under their belts.

Yet, these doctors continue practicing medicine with little to no repercussion.

Florida’s less-than-desirable medical investigative procedure and slow professional prosecution allows many Florida doctors to settle lawsuits over and over again without having to admit liability. Doctors continually dodge the three-strikes law – settling, in some cases, over 20 malpractice claims without even one strike.

How can Florida residents ensure they chose a safe practitioner with so many negligent doctors actively practicing medicine? And what can you do if you feel your doctor caused your injury?

4 Major Flaws in Florida Medical Malpractice Regulation

As Florida patients, many of us know that doctors have a duty to provide a certain standard of care. When a patient can prove that a doctor’s negligence led to an infection or injury, that doctor should be held liable for his or her actions.

Moreover, when a doctor repeatedly harms patients or causes more than one patient’s death, the Florida Board of Medicine (or Board of Osteopathic Medicine) should revoke his or her license to practice.

Unfortunately, Florida’s regulatory system makes it so that a majority of medical malpractice claims against doctors never even reach the Board of Medicine. In fact, several flaws exist in Florida’s health care regulation that tragically allow doctors to continue practicing medicine after multiple patient injuries or deaths.

  • Florida’s medical malpractice prosecutorial system can take years to complete
  • Florida allows doctors to continue practicing medicine while cases are ongoing
  • Florida Board of Medicine rarely sees complaints for license revocation
  • Florida continues to accept repeated settlements rather than fight to prove negligence

The stories are frankly appalling, stories of families who have lost loved ones to a doctor whose large history of allegations against him would make anyone on the Florida Board of Medicine think twice before hiring that doctor to do their surgery. But little has been done to alleviate the fact that Florida doctors continue to get away with murder.

For example, insurance companies have paid to settle 19 complaints against St. Petersberg surgeon Dr. Ernest Rehnke since 1996, including complaints around the deaths of five surgery patients and the permanent injuries of four others. Wrongful death allegations against Dr. Rehnke include claims that a perforation during surgery led to fatal sepsis and that the doctor failed to note internal bleeding after surgery, failed to take prior vascular issues into account prior to surgery and failed to properly monitor oxygen levels in a high-risk patient post-surgery. Yet Dr. Rehnke’s Florida medical license is still active.

Number of Paid Malpractice Claims by Active Florida Doctors (1996 - 2016)

Florida Medical Malpractice Prosecution Delayed

Part of the problem is the length of time Florida malpractice cases take, sometimes two years or longer. As of November 2017, over 300 Florida Department of Health malpractice cases have been pending for over one year.

These delays are likely due to a number of factors. For one, a mere handful of Florida Health Department prosecutors have to deal with hundreds of medical malpractice cases each year. In addition, relocated doctors, witnesses and evidence can take months to gather and process.

Florida Doctors Practice Medicine during Pending Cases

Another dangerous problem with Florida medical malpractice regulation is that, until a decision is reached about a Florida medical malpractice case, doctors are free to continue working. While Florida law allows for medical license suspension during prosecution, the State seldom requests it.

Unfortunately, many doctors under investigation go on to harm more patients and accumulate new charges.

Florida Board of Medicine Rarely Sees Complaints

Florida’s investigative process creates further issues. When a patient files a claim for malpractice against a medical professional in Florida, the Department of Health looks at the allegations and then decides whether to take the complaints to the medical licensing boards (based on the violation in question and other legal requirements).

Once the Florida Department of Health decides that a claim is worth pursuing, the medical board must then authorize the ability of the Department of Health to move forward.

This means a great number of malpractice claims never reach the stage where they are questioned by licensing boards. Of the 6,700 patient complaints about physicians filed in 2015 and 2016, only around 1,000 reached review by Florida medical licensing boards. And of those, only around 180 were authorized by the Florida Board of Medicine as administrative complaints.

In other words, around 97% of medical malpractice claims never receive reprimand by the Florida Department of Health.

Florida Choses Repeat Settlements over Proving Medical Negligence

Florida’s medical regulators prefer to settle physician malpractice claims again and again rather than spend the time and money it takes to prove medical negligence. State records suggest that approximately 81% of Florida medical malpractice claims end in settlement.

And, most medical malpractice settlements end with no admission of liability and no finding of malpractice.

So, while a doctor can be involved in repeated million-dollar settlements for alleged wrongful death, they are still allowed to practice medicine.

Florida’s three strikes law does apply to doctors. If a physician is charged with malpractice three times, his or her license is revoked. But since settlements aren’t strikes, the law designed to hold wrongdoers accountable is basically worthless in medical malpractice cases.

Numerous Medical Malpractice Settlements Increase Risk of Recurrence

Even though settlements are necessarily proof of medical negligence, studies show that a doctor’s chances of being involved in malpractice-related settlements increases with the number of settlements he or she already has under their belt.

Data published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2016 reports that, while settlements don’t equal proof of malpractice, physicians who incurred repeated paid claims had higher risks of recurrence. For example, over a 5-year period, physicians with three paid claims showed a 24% chance of another paid claim within 2 years and a 37% chance of another within 4 years.

Physicians who reached six paid claims had a 62% chance of another within 2 years and a 79% chance of another within 4 years!

Consider Florida plastic surgeon Barry Jack Kaplan, against whom four women filed complaints for serious negligence in breast implant procedures between 1995 and 2016. Victims have accused Kaplan of trying unapproved, experimental surgical procedures, neglecting to repair asymmetries, causing post-surgical infections and permanent deformities.

Though Florida regulators have reprimanded Dr. Kaplan over the past 20 years, Dr. Kaplan has continued to practice cosmetic surgery. In 1996, Florida’s Board of Osteopathic Medicine imposed certain training obligations on Kaplan, restricted his practice in 2000, put him on probation in 2003 and suspended him from practice in 2006.

In 2012, after a 24-year old woman claimed she developed infections after Kaplan assisted in her surgery, the Florida Department of Health and Dr. Kaplan agreed to a $13,000 settlement, requirements for additional training and restrictions on performing further surgery involving incisions.

Yet, in 2014, patient Shirley Woodhall alleged that Kaplan assisted in her breast implant procedure against the Board’s orders, causing permanently misshapen breasts and tissue death resulting in necessary nipple removal. Kaplan argued that he didn’t realize he couldn’t assist with the surgeries. In November 2016, the Board requested revocation of his medical license. But because Kaplan hopes to appeal, his license remains active and he is free to continue practicing medicine.

Research Your Florida Doctor Before Seeking Treatment

Many patient injuries and deaths could be avoided if Florida healthcare regulators would reexamine the system and patterns of malpractice claims among Florida physicians. Faster, more efficient prosecutorial processes are long overdue. Meanwhile, Florida patients should look their doctors up on databases like the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation’s Medical Professional Liability Reporting Claims Database before entering into a doctor-patient relationship.

If you feel you have been injured by a Florida doctor’s negligence, or if you have lost a loved one to Florida medical malpractice, you may have the right to financial compensation. You can learn more about how to file a Florida medical malpractice lawsuit in our free Guide to Florida Medical Malpractice Lawsuits.

Are you a seriously injured victim of one of the repeat offender doctors or some other healthcare professional? Learn your legal rights early as there are strict time limits to filing medical malpractice claims in Florida. Connect Online to set up a confidential no-cost consult.


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