To state the obvious, the cost of health care continues to rise. Yet, Florida’s antiquated No Fault Law (PIP) provides a $10,000.00 limit on medical benefits. Basically, the cost of a visit at your local Emergency room. Thus, lawyers who represent injured accident victims have to find qualified medical providers, who agree to treat the injured now and await payment at a later date. Often times a Plaintiff’s lawyer will sign what is known as a “letter of Protection”, which is basically a guarantee of payment.
In the recent case of Belllezza v. Menendez and Crary Buchanan, P.A. (44 Fla. L. Weekly D630a) Frank Bellaza, the Plaintiff, was injured when when he was struck by a vehicle. Bellezza sustained a neck injury for which he had surgery. Bellezza sued the driver of the vehicle, and its owner.
Bellezza’s lawyer signed a letter of protection for the treating doctor (surgeon).
At trial, the defendant was allowed to introduce evidence regarding the financial relationship between the plaintiff’s attorney and his treating physicians. The trail judge allowed the defendant to question the Plaintiff’s attorney about the letters of protection, her name appearing on the plaintiff’s medical records, and the amount of money paid by her firm’s trust account to the treating physicians over the course of five years. She admitted to having a personal relationship with a couple of the doctors associated with the treating physicians. She also admitted she refers some of her clients to those treating physicians and negotiates bills on their behalf.
The jury found the defendant negligent, but only awarded damages of $20,916.33.
The Plaintiff appealed and argued that the trial court erred in admitting irrelevant financial information concerning the treating physicians and requiring his attorney to testify.
The 4th DCA reversed and remanded for a new trial.
It is established law in Florida that “the financial relationship between a plaintiff’s law firm and the plaintiff’s treating physician is [not] discoverable.” Worley, 228 So. 3d at 22. In its analysis, the supreme court held that Allstate Insurance Co. v. Boecher, 733 So. 2d 993 (Fla. 1999), which permitted the discovery of financial information between law firms and expert witnesses, is inapplicable to treating physicians. Worley, 228 So. 3d at 22.
It is important to note the distinction between treating physicians and expert witnesses. A treating physician is not viewed as an “expert witness”, even though the treating physician will provide expert testimony.