Some, not all, California personal injury cases have damage caps
How much money does a person really need?
The answer is different for everyone, and most people have varying levels of need at different times in their lives. If you were injured in a car accident or sustained a physical injury in some other way (like a workplace accident, slip and fall, or other incident), you’re probably worrying about how you’re going to pay your medical bills, your future medical expenses, and even how you’re going to live if you can no longer work.
Even so, when you hear on the news about court verdicts in the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, it might sound like a staggeringly high number. But depending on your age when the accident happened, the level of need your medical situation presents, and who depends on you financially, your future expenses could be significant.
The best way to determine exactly what you need to continue your financial lifestyle and manage your future expenses is to call in the experts. A California personal injury attorney has the resources needed to do the math — you don’t need to do it on your own. By consulting with medical experts, accountants, actuaries, and others, your lawyer can put a price on what your future expenses will be.
Then, the next challenge is to negotiate that settlement or convince the court that it’s what you really deserve.
But what about when the law places a limit on what you can recover?
A damage cap is exactly that — a statutory maximum applied in some cases that specifies the largest amount that can be awarded in specific types of cases.
California medical malpractice damage cap
California doesn’t have damage caps on compensatory damages for personal injury lawsuits, except for medical malpractice cases. California medical malpractice cases have a $250,000 cap on pain and suffering and other non-economic damages.
First, let’s define compensatory damages:
Compensatory damages are awarded to restore the plaintiff’s financial situation to what it was prior to the injury. In other words, compensatory damages provide financial relief for the plaintiff so that they’re in the same condition following the injury as if the injury hadn’t happened.
Compensatory damages can be for either economic or non-economic losses. Economic losses are actual costs like medical expenses, therapies, property replacement or repair, and anything else that has a dollar amount attached. Non-economic damages are awarded for the intangibles like pain and suffering, emotional distress, reputation harm, and others. The non-economic damages can be equally important, but it’s harder to assign a money value.
Essentially, what’s not a compensatory damage award is punitive damages. Punitive damages are awarded when the court finds that the defendant’s actions were malicious or otherwise so reprehensible that the defendant deserves to be punished by paying out a much larger sum.
The California Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA)
MICRA, which was passed in 1975, means that the $250,000 cap on medical malpractice cases is firm, regardless of the seriousness of the injury and if there’s more than one defendant.
It’s important to note that the cap is only on non-economic damages. You can rest assured that a full damage award can cover your medical expenses, lost wages and earning capacity, and the other costs associated with the injury.
Damage caps on uninsured drivers in California
In 1996, California voters approved the “Personal Responsibility Act,” which placed more restrictions on non-economic damages in some motor vehicle accident lawsuits.
- A driver convicted of driving under the influence (DUI) is prohibited from recovering non-economic damages. An insurance company is not required to defend a driver in this instance.
- The owner of an uninsured vehicle cannot recover non-economic damages unless the damages were caused by a drunk driver.
- An uninsured driver cannot recover any non-economic damages.
These prohibitions aren’t just limited to motor vehicle accidents.
In one notable case (Chude v. Jack in the Box Inc., 109 Cal. Reptr. 3d 773, 2010), the plaintiff sued the fast-food chain Jack in the Box because she was burned after spilling hot coffee that she’d purchased at its drive-through window. Even though the case really had nothing to do with her car and it wasn’t a motor vehicle accident, she still couldn’t recover non-economic damages because she was an uninsured driver.
Damage caps for convicted felons
If you’re convicted of a felony in California, don’t expect to recover damages for anything that might have happened to you while you were committing the crime.
Take this (humorous) scenario for example:
You might recover costs for medical treatment under a premises liability lawsuit if the court finds that there was negligence in the way the bank’s door was built or maintained. However, since you were injured in the process of committing a felony, you won’t be able to recover any non-economic damages like pain and suffering.
Getting what you need to move on
The bottom line is this:
In California, the law always allows you to recover the full economic damages you’re entitled to in a personal injury lawsuit. If your lawyer can persuade the court that the defendant was negligent or caused your injury, you will recover the costs associated with medical treatments, lost earnings, and other actual expenses, including those anticipated to happen in the future.
If your lawsuit is a medical malpractice case, you can recover damages for pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of consortium, and other intangibles up to $250,000. But if you’ve been convicted of a felony (related to the lawsuit) or were driving without insurance, you won’t recover non-economic damages.
The best person to discuss your possible damages with is an experienced California personal injury lawyer. Look for an attorney who has experience with personal injury claims and knows the specifics of how to get you the best possible damage award for your injuries.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.