Medical Malpractice

Medical Malpractice Damage Caps

by David Goguen, J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law
If you're filing a medical malpractice lawsuit, be aware, that many states have placed a statutory cap on the amount of compensation that can be awarded to a successful medical malpractice plaintiff.

When a patient is harmed by the provision of sub-standard medical care, a health care professional or care facility may be liable for medical malpractice. If you’re thinking about bringing this kind of lawsuit to court, it’s crucial to understand how the laws of your state could affect your case. An important threshold issue is whether or not your state’s lawmakers have enacted a statutory cap on medical malpractice damages. In this article, we’ll explain how these caps work, and why they matter.

What Are Damages?

In legalese, and in the context of a medical malpractice case, “damages” is a term that captures all of the losses suffered and incurred by the patient (called the “plaintiff” once the lawsuit is filed). Damages are a component of any medical malpractice claim, whether the health care provider’s mistake is a misdiagnosis, an error during a procedure, or any other negligent action (or inaction) related to the provision of health care.

Damages often include things like:

  • the cost of additional medical treatment (past and future), rehabilitation, and other care made necessary by the malpractice
  • lost income and diminished earning capacity caused by the malpractice
  • "pain and suffering" associated with the malpractice and its impact on the patient, and
  • loss of enjoyment of life and other more subjective, personal impacts of the malpractice.

What Is a Damages "Cap"?

Simply put, a damages “cap” is a law that places a limit -- typically in the form of a dollar figure -- on the amount of compensation that a plaintiff can receive from the at-fault party in a civil lawsuit.

In a medical malpractice case, these caps apply once the injured patient (the plaintiff) has received a court judgment saying that the health care provider (the defendant) is indeed liable for the plaintiff's harm. In other words, a damages cap only comes into play after the plaintiff has filed a lawsuit, a trial has been held, and a jury has decided that the plaintiff has successfully proved that the health care provider committed medical malpractice. Typically, the jury is allowed to consider the facts of the case and award the plaintiff whatever dollar amount they deem appropriate, but if the amount exceeds the statutory cap, the judge will reduce the jury’s award to bring it in line with the law.

Does Every State Have a Medical Malpractice Damages Cap?

Not all states have passed this kind of law. But as part of controversial tort reform efforts -- which seek to dissuade the filing of meritless medical malpractice lawsuits and corral the skyrocketing costs of health care professionals’ liability insurance -- the majority of states have legislated some version of a medical malpractice damages cap.

Most of these caps apply only to a certain category of losses known as “non-economic” damages, which includes compensation for “pain and suffering”, “loss of enjoyment”, and other more subjective consequences of a health care provider’s malpractice. When a state only caps non-economic damages (as most do), that means there’s no limit on “economic” damages, including cost of medical care, lost income, and other quantifiable impacts of the malpractice.

Here are a few state-specific examples:

Learn more about settlements and awards in medical malpractice cases. And if you have questions about the medical malpractice laws in your state, and how they could affect your case, it may be time to discuss your situation with an experienced medical malpractice lawyer.

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