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Damage Caps

As in many other jurisdictions and areas of law, the legislature of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts imposes Damage Caps on certain claims and against certain entities in medical malpractice cases. These laws “cap” the amount plaintiffs can receive at an arbitrary figure.

Boston injury attorneys at the Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman are familiar with ways in which these caps can be successfully challenged. However, the viability of such challenges depends heavily on the facts of the individual case.

Some terms to understand as you continue reading:

  • Economic Damages: Also known as “specific damages,” it’s a monetary reimbursement for out-of-pocket losses resulting from the injury. These would include medical bills, lost wages, lost earning capacity, etc.
  • Non-Economic Damages: Also known as “general damages,” these are a type of monetary award that serves to compensate a person for non-monetary losses that aren’t easily quantifiable. These would be things like pain and suffering, loss of companionship or consortium, loss of life enjoyment, etc.
  • Compensatory Damages: These include both economic and non-economic damages, and serve as compensation for incurred injuries.
  • Punitive Damages: These are damages that serve to punish a defendant for an especially egregious wrongdoing, particularly one that displays wanton disregard or lack of care for the safety and well-being of others. Courts must make a special finding in order for a plaintiff to even request punitive damages from the jury.

With some exceptions, plaintiffs in medical malpractice lawsuits in Massachusetts cannot recover more than $500,000 in non-economic damages. Meanwhile, economic damages for medical malpractice in Massachusetts are not capped.

What are Damage Caps?

Damage caps are statutes limiting the amount of damages that can be awarded in a tort case, such as a medical malpractice claim. Each state has its own caps on damages for medical malpractice claims, and the federal government imposes a baseline $250,000 cap on non-economic damages as well.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled on the issue of damage caps in medical malpractice cases specifically, it has taken on the issue in the larger context of tort reform, of which medical malpractice cases are a part.

In the 2003 case of State Farm v. Campbell, the high court held the due process clause typically limits punitive damage awards to less than 10 times the amount of compensatory damages, and further that four times the compensatory damage award “nears a line of constitutional impropriety.”

Essentially, punitive damages can’t be higher than a ratio of 9-to-1 with compensatory damages.

Explaining Massachusetts Damage Caps

Massachusetts G.L. ch. 231 § 60H sets limitations on non-economic damages at $500,000.

When a jury awards a portion of compensation for coverage of plaintiff’s medical expenses, that money doesn’t go to the victim at all. Rather, it goes to the medical industry for treatment of those injuries. A person who is awarded compensatory damages for lost wages or lost earning capacity isn’t “winning” anything additional – they are being compensated for what they otherwise would have had, but for the injury or illness.

So the damage cap is what is placed on the “additional” damages, or those that affect one’s joy of life and the things that make life worth living.

The good news is that there is a key exception to the statutory damage cap:

If a jury decides there is a “substantial or permanent loss or impairment of a bodily function or substantial disfigurement or other special circumstances that would warrant a finding that imposition of such limitation would deprive plaintiff of just compensation for injuries,” the $500,000 damage cap can be exceeded.

Charitable Caps on Damages

There is unfortunately another type of damage cap in Boston medical malpractice claims that can impact the amount an injured plaintiff can receive. They are damage caps on charitable organizations of $20,000.

Many hospitals in Massachusetts are legally “charitable organizations,” and are thus protected by this statute. This is one of the lowest charitable organization damage caps of anywhere in the country. Lawmakers have been working on legislation to repeal it, but as of this writing, it remains.

However, the statute that sets this cap – Massachusetts G.L. 231 § 85K – does not protect the individual employee. So for example, if an employee doctor of a charitable organization hospital was negligent, the hospital may be protected by that $20,000 damage cap, but the physician is not.

The Harm of Massachusetts’ Non-Economic Damage Cap

One of the reasons why non-economic damage caps are so harmful to society is that they essentially result in one person’s life being “worth” more than another person’s in court.

If there is no cap on economic damages, than a businessman will inevitably be paid more than a stay-at-home mother. But for the injury, he would have earned more than her, so his economic losses are greater.

His life should be worth no more than hers. But when we limit non-economic damages, this is effectively what happens. Because for the same injury, they may both be awarded $500,000 in non-economic damages (the cap), but then the businessman could receive another $3 million, while the stay-at-home mom might receive another $100,000. It takes the discretion away from juries to decide the true valuation of loss.

Contact the Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman today for a free and confidential consultation.

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