If you have a medical malpractice claim against a doctor, hospital or other provider, or you’ve lost a loved one and want to bring a wrongful death case against a healthcare professional, you may be concerned about how damage caps could impact your claim. While Georgia has an interesting history when it comes to malpractice damage caps, the news is mostly good for current Georgia plaintiffs.
What is a Malpractice Damage Cap?
You may have heard about damage caps, or “tort reform,” in the news–or through an advertising campaign. More than half of US states have some sort of limitation on damages that may be awarded in some or all negligence cases. Generally, these caps only apply to non-economic damages. That means damages such as pain and suffering, loss of quality of life, and loss of companionship.
Many states, including Georgia, also cap punitive damages. Punitive damages are damages that are not intended to compensate the plaintiff. Instead, these damages are intended to punish the wrongdoer, and to discourage the defendant and other companies from taking similar risks.
What’s Wrong with Damage Caps?
Insurance companies like to identify rare cases where crazy damages are awarded or take awards out of context to convince the public that injured people are getting undeserved windfalls from juries. It’s easy to understand why they’re selling that story: they’re paying out most of the awards. Insurance companies make their profits by collecting a lot of money in premiums and then paying out as little as possible in settlements and verdicts.
When they can convince state legislatures to limit the damages available, they increase their profits. In other words, it’s great for insurance companies when damages are limited. It’s also good for doctors and hospitals–especially the careless ones. In fact, the American Medical Association has said that “[m]edical liability reform is the AMA’s top legislative priority.” But, it’s bad for injury victims, and for society as a whole.
When a company’s liability is limited no matter how reckless its actions, the incentive to be careful and responsible is reduced. Sometimes, it’s cheaper and easier to allow some people to be harmed or killed and then pay settlements than to correct a safety issue. That’s exactly the kind of thinking punitive damages are intended to discourage.
What Damages are Capped in Georgia?
In 2005, the Georgia legislature capped non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases. The statute limited damages such as loss of quality of life, pain and suffering, loss of companionship and other non-economic damages to $350,000, though the total cap was higher if multiple defendants were involved.
However, in 2010, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the damages cap violated the state constitution by arbitrarily limiting the jury’s discretion to award damages. So, there’s no longer a limit on the non-economic damages a jury can award in a medical malpractice case. But, punitive damages are capped in Georgia.
Punitive damages aren’t available in every personal injury, medical malpractice, or other injury-related case. Most claims in these categories are based in negligence, which is not sufficient to support punitive damages. Instead, they’re available only when the defendant engaged in “willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.”
Even then, punitive damages in most cases are capped at $250,000, with 75% of the award going to the state. The cap does not apply when:
- The claim is for product liability, or
- The defendant intended to cause harm, or
- The defendant was voluntarily intoxicated
What Does this Mean for Malpractice Victims?
When most people think about an award in a medical malpractice or other type of injury case, they think in terms of the total number. However, the attorney negotiating a settlement or arguing your case to a jury must be able to quantify and prove those damages. And, how the damages are classified matters. For example, if you received a jury award of $500,000 that was half economic and half non-economic damages, you’d get the full $500,000, less attorney fees and any costs or subrogation.
But, if the award was half economic damages and half punitive damages, you’d receive $312,500 before attorney fees, costs and subrogation–even though the jury awarded the exact same amount.
This is one of many reasons that it’s important to work with an attorney who is experienced with the type of claim you are pursuing.
Atlanta attorney ReShea Balams fights for maximum compensation for people who have been injured through someone else’s negligence, including victims of medical malpractice, motor vehicle accidents, slip and fall injuries and more. The Balams Firm offers free, no-obligation consultations so injury victims can gather the information they need to make good decisions in difficult times. You can schedule yours right now by calling 855-352-2727 or filling out the contact form on this page.