Medical malpractice occurs when a doctor, other medical professional, and/or healthcare organization falls below the standard duty of care required. This standard applies when managing, diagnosing, or treating a patient, and falling below the standard results in an injury to that patient. Such a deviation from the standard duty of care that is required of all medical professionals is generally due to an act of negligence.
Medical malpractice law is what enables an injured patient to bring a claim against a negligent medical professional. Doing so allows the injured party to recover damages for the harms that were caused by the medical substandard conduct.
Whether a medical professional can be held liable for a patient’s injuries will depend on the facts of a specific case. However, it will also depend on the various rules and requirements of medical malpractice laws that have been enacted in a particular state. Because the standards and regulations for medical malpractice can even vary between different jurisdictions within the same state, it is important to be aware of your state’s specific laws regarding the matter that may apply to you.
Damages in medical malpractice lawsuits generally address three areas:
- Economic Damages: This type of damages refers to monetary amounts that can be measured and specifically calculated based on a particular harm. Some examples of this include medical expenses, hospital bills, lost wages, loss of earning capacity, and various other out-of-pocket costs;
- Non-Economic Damages: Non-economic damages are those that are considered to be more difficult to calculate, because they refer to intangible or somewhat immeasurable injuries. Some examples of this include pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of enjoyment of activities, and reputational damage; and
- Punitive Damages: Punitive damages are the least awarded out of the type of damages that a plaintiff can receive in a medical malpractice lawsuit. Not only are they rarely ever awarded, they are only recognized for such lawsuits in a handful of states. In states where they are awarded, however, there are usually medical malpractice limits, or medical malpractice caps.
A plaintiff may request having a medical professional’s license suspended or revoked, and requiring that a medical facility update their policies and/or health and safety procedures in order to avoid future instances of medical malpractice.
As was briefly mentioned above, many states limit the amount of non-economic damages that a victim can recover in a medical malpractice lawsuit. This fact, and the fact that pursuing a medical malpractice case is generally costly, are important to consider before pursuing any legal action.
What’s the Difference between Economic and Non-economic Damages?
Economic damages may also be referred to as specific damages. They are intended to compensate the plaintiff for their actual, measurable losses. Common examples of economic damages include:
- Lost earnings;
- Compensation for medical expenses, whether past or future;
- Lost business opportunities resulting from the injuries suffered;
- Costs associated with repairing or replacing damaged property; and/or
- Damage resulting from the defendant using the plaintiff’s property without permission.
In cases involving medical malpractice laws, damages awarded generally include:
- Hospital bills;
- Therapy costs for emotional and/or mental issues brought on by the injury;
- The cost of medication; and
- Ambulance bills.
Economic damages are calculated by adding together the amounts that have been documented on pharmacy receipts, hospital invoices, and other various medical bills.
In a medical malpractice lawsuit, an expert witness in that medical field will be needed in order to demonstrate that the physician did not adhere to the standard of care. Additionally, a medical expert witness can assess the complex medical facts of your case in order to determine whether the physician should be held liable for your injury.
Non-economic damages, or general damages, are not measurable. This means that they cannot be calculated by adding up documented bills and receipts. These general damages compensate for non-monetary, not easily quantifiable losses and include:
- The injury itself;
- Emotional distress;
- Disability or disfigurement;
- Pain and suffering;
- Physical impairment;
- Loss of companionship;
- Loss related to the plaintiff’s reputation; and/or
- Loss of enjoyment of life.
As these damages are highly subjective, they vary from case to case. And, because they are by nature difficult to calculate, they are subjected to strict guidelines determined by each individual jurisdiction.
Some state medical malpractice laws will only allow for non-economic damages based on proof of economic damages, which are calculated according to a specific formula in proportion to the economic damages. Generally speaking, they are also subject to a statutory cap.
Are There Any Federal Caps On Medical Malpractice Awards?
Although the United States Supreme Court has not specifically ruled on medical malpractice, it has ruled on tort reform, which medical malpractice is a part of. In the case State Farm v. Campbell (2003), the high Court ruled that punitive damages cannot exceed damages awarded in order to compensate the plaintiff for their injuries by a nine to one ratio. An example of this would be how if the plaintiff was awarded $1000 for their injuries, the defendant cannot be forced to give more than $9000 for punitive damages.
Under federal law, non-economic damages must be reasonable. They cannot be exorbitantly high when compared to the awarded economic damages. As such, you cannot be awarded more for emotional distress than for lost earnings.
What Are the State Limits on Non-Economic Damages?
- California & Colorado: $250,000 cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases.
- For emergency room cases, Florida limits a victim’s recovery for non-economic damages to $150,000 from each physician and hospital involved in the medical malpractice case.
- For non-emergencies, the state limits recovery for non-economic damages to $500,000 from each physician, with an aggregate cap of $1 million for all claimants. Florida also limits a victim’s recovery for non-economic damages to $750,000 from each hospital, HMO, hospice provider and other non-physician provider, with a $1. 5 million aggregate cap for all claimants.
- The cap may be raised in non-emergency situations if a judge determines that it would be unjust not to exceed the cap.
- Kansas: $250,000 award cap on non-economic damages.
- Maryland: As of October 1, 2003, the state limit on non-economic damages was $635,000. This limit increases $15,000 every year.
- Massachusetts: $500,000 cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases.
- Michigan: $280,000 cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases, which is adjusted annually for inflation. However, in some cases (hemiplegic, paraplegic, or quadriplegic due to brain injury or spinal cord, or permanently impaired cognitive injury) the cap is raised to $500,000.
- North Carolina: Starting in 2011, there is a $500,000 cap. The cap includes suits against hospitals or nursing homes for vicarious liability. An exception would be if the injury to the plaintiff was extremely high, and the defendant’s conduct was extremely poor. An example of this would be how a defendant who causes death or permanent disfigurement through intentional action or gross negligence will not invoke the damage cap.
- Texas: Texas limits a victim’s recovery for non-economic damages to $250,000 from each physician involved in the medical malpractice case, with a $250,000 cap against any single institution as well as a $500,000 cap on all health-care institutions combined.
Which States Forbid the Use of Caps On Medical Malpractice Awards?
The following states have no state statutory limits on awards for medical malpractice. This is either because the state constitution forbids it, or because the state courts have struck such limits down as unconstitutional:
- New Hampshire;
- Washington; and
Do I Need a Lawyer to Make a Medical Malpractice Claim?
If you are considering pursuing a medical malpractice claim, you will need to consult with an experienced and local personal injury lawyer. An attorney will be aware of your legal options and rights according to your state’s laws regarding medical malpractice, and whether you will need to be aware of any limits on awards. Additionally, your personal injury attorney will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.