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How Do Damage Caps Work?

By Tanya Roth, Esq. | Updated by Melanie Rauch, JD | Last updated on

Damage caps are legal limits set on the amount of compensation that can be awarded to an injured party in a civil lawsuit. These caps are particularly relevant in personal injury cases, including medical malpractice claims, and are implemented to moderate the financial impact of large settlements on defendants such as healthcare providers and businesses.

Types of Damages and Caps

In legal terms, damages awarded in personal injury and medical malpractice cases are categorized into two main types: compensatory and punitive. Compensatory damages are further divided into economic and non-economic damages. Economic damages cover quantifiable losses such as medical expenses, lost income, and property damage. Non-economic damages compensate for subjective losses like pain and suffering, emotional distress, and loss of enjoyment of life.

Punitive damages are designed to punish the defendant for particularly harmful behavior and deter similar future conduct. Most statutes imposing damage caps focus on non-economic and punitive damages to control the less tangible aspects of compensation awards.

The use of damage caps has sparked considerable debate over their constitutionality and fairness. Supporters argue that caps help prevent disproportionately large legal awards that can destabilize businesses and inflate consumer costs. Opponents, however, believe these caps unfairly limit compensation for victims who may endure lifelong impacts from their injuries.

The Role of Damage Caps in Tort Reform

Damage caps are a central feature of tort reform initiatives aimed at addressing perceived crises in the cost and availability of medical liability insurance. Economic conditions and lobbying from the medical and insurance sectors typically drive these reforms. The idea behind caps on medical malpractice awards, for example, is that decreasing the amount of liability for doctors and hospitals will help keep the overall cost of healthcare down. Meanwhile, opponents of caps on damages argue medical malpractice lawsuits are only a fraction of the overall cost of medical care and only serve to harm injured patients. These discussions illustrate the ongoing tension between reducing insurance costs and ensuring fair compensation for victims.

Damage caps can also increase or decrease according to your state's law. Some states modify caps periodically to adjust for inflation, for example. Legislative updates can also occur.

Application and Impact of Damage Caps

In civil litigation, particularly in personal injury and medical malpractice, damage caps come into play when calculating jury awards. These caps are applied after a jury has determined the defendant’s liability and the total damages owed. If a cap is mandated by state law for the type of damages awarded, the judge will adjust the jury’s decision to align with this legal limit.

Interestingly, juries are not informed about the cap in many jurisdictions during their deliberations. This policy aims to ensure that damages assessments are based solely on the merits of the case, without external legislative influence. Once a verdict is reached, the judge adjusts the awarded amount if necessary to comply with the cap, potentially altering the final compensation received by the plaintiff.

Broader Impact of Damage Caps Across Various Case Types

In cases of wrongful death or severe car accidents, the role of damage caps can profoundly affect the damage awards received. Medical bills and ongoing medical care costs are typically part of personal injury lawsuit calculations. These can be substantial on their own. However, non-economic damage caps specifically limit compensation for mental anguish and diminished quality of life, which do not have a direct financial cost but significantly impact the injured person. Insurance companies favor these caps as they help manage the payout amounts and mitigate financial uncertainty in personal injury claims.

Your personal injury lawyer will understand how damage caps work and can explain what damages you are attempting to recover in a lawsuit. Setting limits on lawsuit awards is a complicated task. Damage caps were created to lower insurance costs, however, many argue they reduce compensation unjustly for those that have suffered the most.

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