Medical malpractice settlements and court judgments compensate injured patients for severe health issues, loss of quality of life, and pain and suffering. But many states implement damage caps for medical malpractice payouts.
These caps can limit your compensation in a medical malpractice case. It takes the work of an experienced medical malpractice lawyer to ensure that you obtain the maximum payment available under your state’s law.
What Is a Damage Cap?
Damage caps limit the damages injured individuals can receive from the parties at fault for causing them harm. A state legislature can cap virtually any category of damages, including economic, non-economic, wrongful death, or punitive.
Capping recovery for non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering, is most common. States take varying approaches to how they define a damage cap. Some limit non-economic damages to a multiple of proven economic damages like medical expenses, lost earnings, and other tangible costs. Other states simply set a maximum dollar amount on non-economic damages in some cases, like medical malpractice.
Why Do States Have Damage Caps?
Damage caps in medical malpractice cases are the creation of lobbyists for the medical and insurance industries. Over the past two decades (when most caps went into effect), these powerful special interests have gained a foothold in state legislatures by convincing lawmakers that the threat of large medical malpractice awards drives medical providers out of business or diminishes the quality of care they can deliver.
These are dubious claims, to say the least. The real reason doctors and insurance companies want to cap malpractice damages is that paying compensation to injured patients eats into their bottom line. Lobbyists have seized on rare instances of unusually large medical malpractice awards to mislead legislatures into thinking that a crisis exists.
In reality, most medical malpractice awards delivered by juries accurately reflect injured patients’ damages and appropriately hold at-fault medical providers accountable for their mistakes.
Both common types of caps can lead to unjust outcomes for injured patients. A cap that multiplies economic damages fails to consider the potentially devastating effects of an injury that does not necessarily require a significant amount of long-term or costly medical care, like losing one’s eyesight or suffering nerve damage that causes facial paralysis.
And a cap that sets a maximum dollar amount on damages can vastly under-value the impact of an injury or loss of life, especially if a legislature does not regularly adjust the cap to account for inflation a common oversight that, in effect, shrinks the size of the cap every year.
Lawyers for injured patients adamantly oppose caps and push back against powerful industry lobbyists’ efforts to enact or expand them. We know from experience that any blanket rule capping damages can and inevitably will work a profound injustice to innocent patients.
Medical malpractice cases involve highly specific facts. Juries, not legislatures, know best how to put a value on the harm done by negligent medical providers on a case-by-case basis. In fact, courts in some states have ruled damage caps unconstitutional.
Caps on Damages Against Non-Profit Organizations
Besides limits keyed to a specific type of damages in a medical malpractice case, some states have enacted caps on jury awards against non-profit organizations. These caps can act as stealth medical malpractice damage caps because large medical providers commonly organize as non-profits for tax reasons. Many hospitals, for example, are legally considered “charitable organizations” under the laws of the states where they operate.
If the hospital responsible for medical malpractice that harmed you have non-profit status, it’s possible a state’s law might cap the damages you could secure against it in a lawsuit. However, experienced medical malpractice lawyers know that non-profit status might not affect the liability of doctors and other healthcare workers who provide care at a non-profit institution. That’s why it’s important to work with a skilled lawyer who can evaluate your case against various parties to your medical malpractice claim.
Medical Malpractice Damage Caps in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Florida
Medical malpractice damage caps vary widely depending on the state where a patient’s injury occurred. And because lobbyists continue to try to convince legislators and judges that medical malpractice damages are fueling a supposed crisis in the medical profession, caps are constantly changing.
Here’s a rundown of the current status of medical malpractice damage caps in three states where we have significant experience: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Florida. The differences between how each state approaches caps are stark and, if you ask us, somewhat arbitrary an illustration of why it’s so important to have an experienced medical malpractice lawyer who stays fully informed about the up-to-the-minute evolution of damage cap law applicable to your case.
New Jersey law does not specifically cap damages in medical malpractice actions. No statute generally limits your ability to recover economic and non-economic (pain and suffering) damages in New Jersey medical malpractice cases.
New Jersey does, however, cap punitive damages in all personal injury lawsuits, including medical malpractice actions, at five times the amount of a claimant’s compensatory (economic + non-economic) damages or $350,000, whichever is greater.
Punitive damages serve to punish an at-fault party rather than to compensate an injured victim for losses. New Jersey juries have the authority to award punitive damages if the injured party can prove that the at-fault party acted with actual malice or a wanton and willful disregard for others and the amount awarded is reasonable and justified in the circumstances of the case.
In the context of medical malpractice cases, punitive damages are rare but not unheard of. They might be appropriate, for example, in the case of a surgeon who operated on a patient while under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs. An experienced medical malpractice attorney can evaluate your case to determine if it justifies a claim for punitive damages.
Pennsylvania resembles New Jersey in how it approaches medical malpractice damages. The Commonwealth does not cap economic or non-economic damages. But it does cap punitive damages specifically in medical malpractice cases, except those involving intentional misconduct.
Pennsylvania’s approach to medical malpractice punitive damages, however, differs dramatically from New Jersey’s. The law sets a cap of 200 percent of an injured patient’s compensatory damages but also requires a minimum punitive damage award of $100,000 unless a jury returns a lower verdict. Pennsylvania also mandates that 25 percent of any medical malpractice punitive damage award be paid to a special fund, known as the Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error Fund (“Mcare”), overseen by the Pennsylvania Insurance Department.
Florida’s law on medical malpractice damage caps is something of a moving target, to put it mildly. In 2003, the state passed a law dictating a range of caps on non-economic (pain and suffering) medical malpractice damages. The law distinguished between claims against medical practitioners and non-practitioners. It also set separate caps for medical malpractice claims involving injuries and those involving wrongful death. The law was right out of the industry lobby playbook, aimed at ending the (non-existent) crisis of medical malpractice lawsuits in the medical profession.
In 2017, however, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in two separate cases that the statute’s caps on non-economic damages in medical malpractice actions violated the Florida Constitution. As of now, those decisions remain in effect which means that for the moment, Florida has no enforceable caps on medical malpractice non-economic damages in cases that go to court (even though the text of the statute has not changed).
But commentators also expect that the medical malpractice non-economic damage caps may go back into effect because the composition of the Florida Supreme Court has become more conservative, and thus friendlier to damage caps, since 2017.
Separately, the Florida legislature has also passed a complicated set of statutes governing voluntary arbitration of medical malpractice claims. Arbitration is an alternative to going to court in which the parties agree to have a claim decided once-and-for-all by an arbitrator (basically, a private judge) of their choosing. In theory, arbitrations are faster and more economical than taking a case to court.
Florida’s medical malpractice arbitration laws set caps on damages in disputes that the parties agree to submit to binding arbitration. The statutes also cap damages in medical malpractice actions when an injured party refuses to submit to binding arbitration after a defendant requests it. The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that those caps are constitutional.
So, to summarize, Florida statutes say they cap non-economic medical malpractice damages in cases that go to court, but the Florida Supreme Court (for now) says those caps are unconstitutional. Florida statutes also cap non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases decided in arbitration and in cases decided by a court after the plaintiff refuses arbitration, and the Florida Supreme Court says those caps are just fine.
Confused yet? Well, hang on, because we’re not quite finished.
Florida also caps punitive damages in most medical malpractice cases at the greater of three times compensatory damages or $500,000. And if you agree to arbitrate a Florida medical malpractice claim, you cannot recover punitive damages at all.
The bottom line, when it comes to Florida medical malpractice damage caps, is that things are really complicated and potentially changing all the time. Always seek the counsel of an experienced Florida medical malpractice lawyer to understand the damages you might recover in a Florida medical malpractice case.
How a Medical Malpractice Lawyer Can Help With Damage Caps
Hiring an experienced medical malpractice lawyer in the state where you sustained your injuries is the most effective way to maximize your compensation. Even if your state caps medical malpractice damages, you may still have the right to receive significant monetary damages. A lawyer who understands the ins and outs of pursuing medical malpractice cases can give you the best shot at securing the most money possible.
A skilled medical malpractice lawyer can:
- Investigate your medical injury to determine how it happened and to identify the medical providers and institutions potentially at fault
- Evaluate the economic and non-economic consequences of the harm you suffered
- Target all available sources of compensation for your medical malpractice-related injuries
- Analyze insurance coverage for your losses
- Explore the possibility of pursuing punitive damages in your case
- Take the necessary steps under your state’s law to put medical providers on notice of your potential claim
- Work with medical experts when necessary to substantiate your malpractice claim
- Present your claim to a medical review board, if applicable
- Assess and advise you about the pros and cons of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) options like mediation or arbitration
- Prepare and submit your medical malpractice damages claim to insurance companies and courts
- If possible, negotiate a settlement of your claim with defense attorneys and at-fault medical providers
- When necessary, present your medical malpractice claim in a trial before a judge or arbitrator
- Collect and distribute all money due to you from a settlement, judgment, or award
Medical malpractice attorneys generally represent their clients on contingency, which means that you usually don’t need to pay upfront fees or hourly rates. Instead, a lawyer will likely agree to represent you in exchange for a fee consisting of a percentage of any money recovered on your behalf.
Contact a Skilled Medical Malpractice Lawyer Today
Medical malpractice damage caps can change the evaluation of your claim and against whom to file a lawsuit. But their existence should not deter you from seeking skilled legal advice about your case. No matter what your state’s law says about capping medical malpractice damages, you have valuable rights that allow you to demand compensation for your losses.
A skilled medical malpractice attorney can help. Learn more about any caps and other laws governing your medical malpractice claim by contacting an experienced attorney today for a free consultation.