If a patient prevails in a claim of medical malpractice, they may be able to recover compensation for both economic and non-economic damages. In the tragic event that a patient dies from medical malpractice, their family members may be able to recover damages through a wrongful death claim. However, many states impose damages caps on medical malpractice claims. These may limit the total amount of an award or limit only part of an award.
Economic and Non-Economic Damages
Economic damages, also known as special damages, reimburse a victim for financial costs related to the malpractice. Most notably, they cover medical expenses related to the treatment or therapy required to address the resulting injuries. They also cover lost income if the victim’s injuries caused them to miss time at work. A victim may be able to recover damages for future medical expenses, as long as the calculation is not overly speculative. Economic damages may be supported by documentation, such as medical bills, but sometimes an expert will need to testify to support a request for future damages or more complex items of damages.
Non-economic damages, also known as general damages, are less easy to quantify in a dollar amount. They most commonly cover the pain and suffering that the victim endured, in addition to any reduction in their quality of life. (This is often known as loss of enjoyment of life.) If the malpractice resulted in a permanent disability, a victim may be able to get compensation for their future loss of earning capacity. Non-economic damages often need to be supported by more than just documentation. Witness testimony from the victim, their family members, their friends, and potentially experts can help a judge or jury understand the impact of the malpractice on their life.
These damages are relatively uncommon, but they may be awarded in egregious situations. While the purpose of economic and non-economic damages is to compensate the patient for their costs and losses, the purpose of punitive damages is to punish the medical professional for their conduct and send a message to similarly situated medical professionals. Punitive damages can be substantial when they are awarded. A judge or jury has discretion in setting the award, within certain constitutional limits.
A victim typically needs to prove intent, recklessness, or another mental state that is greater than negligence to obtain punitive damages. This can be hard to do unless the defendant’s conduct was close to criminal.
Wrongful Death and Survival Damages
Claims based on the death of a patient can result in two different types of damages, depending on the nature of the claim. First, wrongful death actions are meant to compensate the family members of the victim for funeral expenses and their future financial losses, based on the contributions of the victim to their family. Some states allow families to receive wrongful death damages based on more subjective types of loss, such as lost companionship or guidance, but many states do not permit these damages. Only certain family members are eligible to receive wrongful death damages, as provided by the wrongful death statute in each state.
The other type of claim is known as a survival action. Damages in survival actions compensate the estate of the victim (or their heirs) for the costs related to the malpractice before their death. They cover many of the types of damages that the victim would have sought in a personal injury claim had they survived. Plaintiffs may be able to recover compensation for the victim’s medical bills before their death, in addition to any conscious pain and suffering that they experienced.
Caps on damages in medical malpractice cases are more common than caps on damages in ordinary personal injury cases. Often, a cap will apply only to non-economic damages, while allowing a victim to recover any amount of economic damages that they can prove. In some states, an award must take into account other sources of payment that the victim received, such as benefits from insurance policies. Attorney fees in medical malpractice cases may be limited as well.