When a plaintiff is able to prove a defendant’s liability in a personal injury or medical malpractice case, he or she can potentially recover economic and non-economic damages. Economic damages are compensation you receive as a result of monetary losses you suffer because of an accident. They may include medical bills, lost income, property damage, loss of earning capacity, vocational rehabilitation, household services, and out-of-pocket costs. Non-economic damages are less concrete than economic damages and are subjectively evaluated by the jury.
Non-economic damages may include pain, emotional anguish, humiliation, reputational damage, loss of enjoyment of activities, or worsening of prior injuries. In some states, they are referred to as pain and suffering. Additionally, a spouse may be able to recover a type of non-economic damage called loss of consortium.
Non-economic damages typically compensate a plaintiff for the impact that an injury has had on their daily life.
After a catastrophic injury, some of the greatest losses may be non-economic. Many plaintiffs bring their lawsuits not just to recover economic damages, which often result in a substantial recovery by insurers and physicians rather than the plaintiff’s family, but in order to obtain redress for their loss of joy in living. People who are seriously injured may encounter pain every time they perform an activity that healthy people take for granted, such as helping their children put on clothes for the day, driving to work, or standing for an hour to cook dinner. Serious injuries often result in a plaintiff being unable to enjoy the activities he or she was previously able to enjoy.
For example, after certain brain and spinal injuries, people who previously enjoyed an active lifestyle of dancing, taking long walks, and playing sports after work to relieve stress may be unable to do these activities or may be severely limited in doing these activities. This, in turn, can result in reduced social contact or an alteration of lifestyle that can make it harder for the plaintiff to enjoy his or her life.
Similarly, when a doctor fails to conduct an appropriate differential diagnosis, he or she may miss an impending heart attack that results in the wrongful death of a father of four children. His family members may sue for wrongful death, not only because without him they are unsure how they will pay their mortgage payments, but also because it is difficult to grow up without a father who offered support and guidance to his spouse and to each of his children on a daily basis. To prove this non-economic loss, the family members would need to testify about their relationship to the deceased person.
A handful of states impose caps on non-economic damages in general personal injury cases.
Different juries may reach different conclusions about the appropriate amount of non-economic damages. Since there is no direct economic loss and no hard evidence of bills or receipts on which to base the award, it can be difficult for juries to assign a monetary value to the losses. Because of their more abstract and subjective nature, non-economic damages have been subject to tort reform laws in many states.
Those who support tort reform have argued that awards of non-economic damages are excessive, the result of inflamed emotions rather than proof. In most states, there is no cap on non-economic damages in personal injury cases, but there is a cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases.