Year after year, one topic that continues to be a point of contention for courts across the United States is medical malpractice reform. It seems that there are never enough changes to be made and implemented within this section of tort law.
Not only are physicians, hospitals, and insurance companies influenced by medical malpractice reform, but victims of medical malpractice and their attorneys are, as well.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the fact that there are endless different ways these types of accidents can occur. It only makes sense that the laws that govern medical malpractice lawsuits should be reviewed periodically and updated accordingly to reflect society’s standards and take other relevant concerns into consideration, should they arise.
Below we take a deeper dive into what exactly medical malpractice reform looks like in the 2020s and how medical malpractice victims can be influenced by these changes.
What Is Medical Malpractice Reform?
Reforming medical malpractice lawsuits is a near-impossible feat on a national level. Although there have been attempts made to impose limitations and additional guidelines federally, wide national medical malpractice reform seems unlikely.
However, this is not the case on a state-by-state basis, where each state can impose its own laws surrounding how medical malpractice cases work. This could include setting or amending limitations on the amount of time someone might have to file their medical malpractice claim, putting a cap on non-economic or punitive damages, and creating, amending, or repealing various medical malpractice laws.
A good example of medical malpractice reform in action could include a medical malpractice lawyer in Kentucky no longer needing to have a case reviewed by a medical review panel before filing a lawsuit. This is due to medical malpractice reform changes made back in December 2018.
Another example could be the medical malpractice attorney in Michigan who will no longer be held back by a non-economic damages cap of $280,000, first imposed back in 1993. The Michigan Department of Treasury announced in early 2020 that this lower cap would be increased to over $400,000.
Although medical malpractice reform can consist of all facets of medical malpractice laws at a state-by-state and federal level, they more often than not will focus on creating, amending, or repealing caps on damages in medical malpractice civil claims.
Compensatory Damages in Medical Malpractice Lawsuits
Compensatory damages, also commonly referred to as economic damages, are the monetary losses that a medical malpractice or personal injury victim can be awarded as part of their injury settlement. Any financial loss the victim has endured can be sought in a legal claim. Some of the economic damages a victim might seek in their lawsuit include the following:
- Lost wages
- Loss of future potential earnings
- Unexpected child care expenses
- Unexpected necessary household maintenance costs
- Medical expenses and equipment stemming from the medical malpractice
These compensatory damages rarely, if ever, face the scrutiny that non-economic damages do, as they are significantly easier to quantify. What’s more, medical malpractice victims usually don’t have to worry about their economic damages being capped in the same way that they might if they live in a state with non-economic damages or medical malpractice cap.
Non-Economic Damages: Are Caps Constitutional?
Non-economic damages consist of the various losses that an injury victim has endured that are not monetary in nature. This means that medical malpractice victims can be compensated for all of the ways that their lives have been negatively influenced by their injuries.
For instance, in addition to being awarded compensation for pain and suffering or emotional distress, victims can also be compensated for things like any permanent scarring or disfigurement stemming from their injuries.
Diminished quality of life, damaged relationships with family and friends, destroyed professional and personal reputations, and other relevant ways that a victim’s life has been impacted by their injuries can all be considered non-economic damages.
Unfortunately, since non-economic damages do not have a set monetary value, it makes it difficult for medical malpractice lawyers to determine how much these losses are worth. Furthermore, many states have imposed caps on the amount of compensation a victim can be awarded for non-economic damages in medical malpractice and personal injury lawsuits.
The question of the constitutionality of these caps continues to be an issue in various states across the U.S. While some states have determined that it is unconstitutional to impose caps on non-economic damages and in medical malpractice lawsuits in general, others continue to have limits on the amount a victim can be awarded for non-economic damages.
Punitive Damages and Medical Malpractice Claims
One of the most common questions from individuals who have suffered from medical malpractice is whether they are going to be entitled to punitive damages as part of their injury settlement. Every state’s laws and regulations regarding medical malpractice lawsuits are different, but the laws surrounding punitive damages are generally the same, with few exceptions.
Punitive damages refer to the compensation a medical malpractice victim is awarded that is above and beyond any compensatory and non-economic damages. The judge and jury can award punitive damages to the injury victim if they find that the actions of the liable party, whether that be a hospital, surgeon, physician, doctor’s office, nurse, or another culpable party, were egregious or intentionally harmful.
A good example of a case that may warrant an award of punitive damages could be the 2018 case in New York, Gomez v. Cabatic, where a physician destroyed and misrepresented patient medical records in order to strengthen their defense and weaken the victim’s case. Here, the family was awarded $500,000 in compensatory and non-economic damages and an additional $7.5 million in punitive damages.
Although being awarded punitive damages in a medical malpractice case can dramatically increase the amount of your total injury settlement, the fact remains that in general, punitive damages are rarely awarded. The court will only issue an award of punitive damages if and when they feel it necessary or appropriate to impose their own punishment in addition to the compensation awarded to make the injury victim whole.