When plaintiffs bring a lawsuit for damages involving personal injury or medical malpractice, they will seek full compensation for their injuries, often making claims for both actual (economic) and subjective damages (non-economic).
If successful, a jury can award the plaintiff’s provable economic injuries for things like medical expenses, lost earnings, damage to property, and other out-of-pocket losses. Economic damages are more common because they are generally easier to prove through actual invoices, cashed checks, or expert witnesses.
The truth is that more often than not, when a plaintiff is injured, the injury most impacts their quality of life. However, unlike economic damages which are easier to quantify, non-economic damages are more personal in nature and so the plaintiffs’ demands can be quite large in sum depending on the particular facts of their case.
Plaintiffs seeking recovery for non-economic damages may include quality of life type claims for pain and suffering, loss of consortium, loss of enjoyment, or reputational damages, for example.
The more directly related the non-economic claims for damages are to the injury, the more likely they are to be awarded by a jury. Non-economic damages can be proven with expert testimony and should be supported by specific facts and well-detailed records and documentation.
Why are Non-Economic Damages Capped?
Economic damages are collected to pay for out-of-pocket expenses. For example, a plaintiff who is awarded damages in the amount of their medical expenses is really recovering for the health care providers, not for themselves.
So, rarely do plaintiffs see any real windfall with economic damages. Moreover, economic damages are not awarded to compensate a plaintiff for the inconvenience that comes with dealing with the fallout from their injuries.
Because non-economic damages are more subjective in nature, verdicts can vary wildly and can be quite substantial. If a jury feels that a defendant’s actions were particularly egregious or a plaintiff’s case is particularly sympathetic, a jury may decide to award damages that seem to be excessive in proportion to the actual damages.
As well, non-economic damages can be punitive in nature (which is different from damages that are awarded for the specific purpose of punishment—punitive damages) if the jury is particularly emotionally impassioned.
Some of these awards result in companies passing the cost off to customers and are seen as encouragement to plaintiffs to file lawsuits with the goal of obtaining out-of-proportion awards. These disproportionate awards are also seen as contributing to the rising costs of healthcare.
These concerns have influenced tort reform policy which seek to curb runaway jury awards in medical malpractice cases. Many states, for example, have addressed these concerns by placing caps (i.e. a limit) on such damages and some have even placed a limitation on the total combined economic and non-economic damages a plaintiff can be awarded in a medical malpractice claim. Other states have declined to put a cap on non-economic damages, seeing such limitations as arbitrary and contrary to the constitutional right to a trial by a jury.
What is the Cap for Non-Economic Damages in Your State?
Each state varies as to the capped amount a plaintiff can recover for non-economic damages. These limits can inform your decision about what amount of damages to seek and the types of claims you should assert. Here are a couple of examples to illustrate how differently recovery can work in different states.
In Kansas, thirty-two year old Sue is an active runner, a busy mother of three and a happily married wife of seven years. She goes in for a simple hysterectomy but because of the doctor’s negligence, Sue suffered a perforation of the colon and is now required to wear a colostomy bag.
Sue no longer runs and she is no longer the happy, carefree mother and wife she used to be. A jury awards Sue one million dollar for her claims for non-economic injuries, but Kansas caps Sue’s non-economic recovery at $250,000.
If Sue were in Mississippi, she might have been able to recover $500,000. This is still less than the jury awarded but twice as much as she would have recovered in Kansas. State laws will have some exception to these caps, but it is clear to see that the cap differences between states can yield different results for each plaintiff. For example, in a state with no cap, Sue would have recovered the full amount of the award the jury determined was fair based on the facts of her case.
Should I Hire a Lawyer If I Want to Claim Non-Economic Damages?
If you have been injured, it is always a good idea to consult with a qualified attorney in your state. The facts of your particular case will dictate the nature of your claims and the awards you may be entitled to recover. An attorney who practices in your state will know your state’s position on the limits of recovery and will advise you how best to protect your rights.