FORT MYERS — Lee Memorial Healthcare System leaders decided Thursday to establish an internal group with the authority to settle medical malpractice claims on a case-by-case basis for amounts not to exceed $4 million.
Their decision specifies that the public hospital system will not be waiving its sovereign immunity defense rights when it considers a settlement. The settlement option will only apply to claims that aren't covered by insurance.
Thursday's action by the Lee Memorial hospital board was in response to the Florida Legislature this past spring approving a $15-million claims bill for Aaron Edwards, 14, a former patient who suffers from severe cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair after his birth at Lee Memorial Hospital in Fort Myers.
The claims bill was the first-ever against Lee Memorial, which came after a $31-million jury verdict in 2007. Lee Memorial denies responsibility for the boy's injuries and said key evidence wasn't heard at trial.
Board members agreed the claims bill was an anomaly but they need to be prepared in case it happens again.
Lee Memorial's legal team didn't have the authority to settle cases before the Edwards case; having that option may have avoided what happened, said Mary McGillicuddy, the hospital's chief legal officer.
The self-insurance council will include Lee Memorial's risk manager, the chief executive officer and the board chairman. Board member Steve Brown, who is a physician, tried to add an amendment that settlements first must be brought to the board for approval. His motion failed.
Jim Nathan, Lee Memorial's president and chief executive officer, said settlements historically have been for less than the sovereign immunity limit of $200,000.
All public entities, from school boards to municipalities, realize they face exposure now, he said.
"We are not the only ones in this," Nathan said. "We are not alone in this journey. We just happen to be the poster child."
The hospital board is expected to discuss in June whether to purchase traditional medical malpractice insurance.