Non-Economic Damages Cap Struck Down by State Court

Earlier this month, in the case of Smith v. United States of America, the Utah Supreme Court struck down legislation that capped/limited certain damages for medical malpractice injuries resulting in death.  That legislation, known as the Utah Health Care Malpractice Act, had been on the books since 1986.  According to the Utah Supreme Court, the legislation violated the state’s constitution by unfairly limiting the amount of recoverable damages for injuries resulting in death.  Following this ruling, Plaintiffs in Utah who bring a medical malpractice case for medical mistakes resulting in the death of a loved one may not have their awards reduced or limited by the former non-economic damages cap. 

So what are non-economic damages?   Non-economic damages are they type of compensation awarded to plaintiffs for the losses caused by the medical negligence of others.  Non-economic damages typically are referred to as compensation for the pain, suffering and emotional distress associated with the loss of a loved one.  In a wrongful death case, these injuries are claimed by the surviving beneficiaries, as defined by each state’s laws.  In Maryland, wrongful death beneficiaries include the decedent’s spouse, parents (if living), and children.  In addition, the decedent’s Estate is entitled to bring a claim for non-economic damages as well.  The decedent’s personal representative typically brings this claim by essentially standing in the shoes of the decedent and arguing that prior to his/her death, the decedent experienced pain, suffering and emotional distress that he/she should not have experienced.  Non-economic damages can be contrasted with economic damages (things like past medical bills, future medical bills, out-of-pocket medical costs, funeral expenses, past lost wages, future lost wages). 

Utah is not the first state to strike down laws limiting the recovery of non-economic damages in medical malpractice actions as states such as Arizona, Pennsylvania, New York and Wyoming, among others, have had similar decisions striking down statutory caps.  Most states, however, continue to have caps or limits in place.  In Maryland, as of January 1, 2015, wrongful death beneficiaries are only able to recover a maximum of $943,750 as the result of the death of a loved one.  This amount includes what the decedent’s Estate is also able to recover.  By contrast, if an individual dies as the result of the negligence of another individual or entity, in a non-medical malpractice case, his/her wrongful death beneficiaries, including the Estate, are entitled to recover in excess of $2,000,000 under the non-economic damages cap.  The inequities here are obviously quite staggering. 

What impact will the Utah decision have on the rest of the country’s legislation?  As a threshold matter, Utah State Supreme Court decisions only create law for the state of Utah.  Other states are not required to follow or adhere to the Smith decision.  Nonetheless, it is a step in the right direction as one more state has recognized that these caps unfairly punish victims of medical malpractice for the mere fact that the negligence that resulted in their death came at the hands of a medical health care provider, as opposed to an otherwise ordinary citizen.  Notwithstanding these caps, in every case in which medical mistakes have resulted in the death of an individual, it is important for the family to secure the services of an experienced medical malpractice attorney who is familiar with the types of damages that can be recovered in any case so as to maximize the recovery. 

If a loved one has been the victim of medical malpractice resulting in death, call our attorneys at 410-385-2225 for a free consultation.  Our office routinely handles these matters in the Baltimore and Washington D.C. areas.