Noneconomic Damages in Medical Malpractice: An Unnecessary Distinction?

The legal field is loaded with language that makes it feel distant to most people. What should be easy to understand is too often elusive, and this shortcoming of our legal system prevents many aggrieved citizens from holding others accountable when their rights have been abused.

Another way that our legal system places a constraint on citizens is by attempting to classify things that defy classification. To explore what we mean by this, let's examine medical malpractice cases, which are cases in which healthcare providers fail to provide patients with a reasonable level of care and patients suffer harm as a result. In these cases, the injured patients are required to place a dollar amount on the damages they have suffered.

Damages is a term used to describe how much an injury costs a victim and, thus, how much compensation they seek when filing a claim. While it's somewhat reasonable to expect a plaintiff (the person filing the claim against the provider) to estimate how much their injuries will cost, it might seem confusing to a plaintiff that our legal system attempts to separate damages into subcategories.

Types of Damages

Damages are classified as economic and noneconomic. Economic damages are estimates of both the past and future costs of an injury, such as medical bills, lost hours at work and loss of work capacity, to name a few. Calculating these damages is not a science, but it's no stretch of the imagination to believe that a reasonable estimate can be put forth based on tangible things like healthcare costs and a plaintiff's wages at the time of injury.

Noneconomic damages include things like pain and suffering, and this is where the system falls short in accurately addressing the needs of too many injured patients. After all, how do you determine how much pain costs you? A person who is suffering with the physical and mental consequences of a serious injury can experience depression, anxiety, strained relationships and a diminished quality of life. These types of suffering are simply incalculable.

How Much is Your Well-Being Worth?

Asking a person to quantify how much their quality of life or relationships are worth is a burdensome request, but it also obscures the fact that these noneconomic damages also have economic consequences. A person who loses relationships and lives with pain will likely be less productive and more prone to further illnesses. Noneconomic damages might also disrupt a person's living situation, educational opportunities or earning potential. These are just some of the reasons that noneconomic damages sought in medical malpractice cases are so high - because these damages are often much more consequential than medical bills or lost income.

Some states limit, or put caps on, the amount of noneconomic damages a person can seek in a medical malpractice claim. For someone whose life has been shattered because of a healthcare provider's negligence, this literally adds insult to injury. Medical malpractice caps essentially put forward the idea that a plaintiff's pain and suffering, in all its forms, is worth only so much.

Six states, including Indiana and Virginia, have caps on the total amount a person can seek in a medical malpractice claim. Twenty-six states, including Maryland and Texas, place limits on the amount someone can seek in noneconomic damages. Nineteen states, including New York and Pennsylvania, have no caps on the amount of damages, economic or noneconomic, a person can seek in a claim.

However, while these caps are currently determined at the state level, some federal lawmakers are hoping to make noneconomic damage caps on medical malpractice the law of the land, much to the dismay of injured patients, plaintiff's attorneys and states' rights advocates. This type of legislation is not a novel idea - the healthcare industry has historically been keen on reducing their liability in medical malpractice cases, even though statistics show that a small percentage of healthcare spending is devoted to malpractice defense.

Determining Damages in Medical Malpractice Cases

If you think the idea of an injured patient sitting down with bank statements, medical bills and a calculator to determine how much they'll pursue in damages is unreasonable, or even far-fetched, you'd be right. That task is too tall an order for someone unfamiliar with medical malpractice cases. A medical malpractice attorney specializes in helping clients come up with a dollar amount. Attorneys use many tools, including legal precedent, to determine the appropriate amount of damages in a lawsuit.

Injured patients need the services of someone who understands the complexity of the legal system and knows how to calculate an accurate estimate of the true costs they are facing. Filing a medical malpractice claim can be intimidating, and it's true that not all attorneys are willing to take on these cases. However, finding the right counsel can help ensure your rights are observed and that you're given the compensation you deserve.

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