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Is There a Future for Personal Injury Damage Caps?

In the 1980s and 1990s, a wave of tort reform swept the country as many states enacted laws that limited the amount of noneconomic damages an injured party could recover in cases of personal injury, medical malpractice and wrongful death. Medical malpractice was a particular area of concern, as supporters of tort reform argued that lawsuits were driving up healthcare costs by forcing doctors to practice “defensive medicine” and pay ever-escalating costs of malpractice insurance. Tort reform targeted noneconomic damages — compensation for “pain and suffering,” etc. — which in catastrophic cases could equal millions of dollars. Many states placed statutory maximums, or caps, at $250,000 to $500,000. However, in one appeal after another, state supreme courts have ruled that such limits violate principles of equal justice and due process.

South Carolina was one of the earliest states to reject a statutory cap on constitutional grounds. In Hanvey v. Oconee Memorial Hosp., 416 S.E.2d 623 (S.C. 1992),  the South Carolina Supreme Court found a violation of equal protection in a statute that limited a hospital’s liability to $100,000 when other charities had a $200,000 limit. Other states have found that damage caps violate these constitutional principles:

  • Equal protection
  • Plaintiff’s right to trial by jury
  • Separation of powers doctrine
  • Substantive due process

North Carolina currently has a $500,000 limit on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases. Virginia has an escalating cap on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases. The limit is currently $2.2 million and is set to rise gradually to $3 million in 2031.

Yet, the momentum on this issue is clearly on the side of plaintiffs’ rights. In many states that have retained caps on noneconomic damages, defendants are often willing to settle for amounts that exceed the statutory limit because they don’t want to be forced to defend the cap on appeal and risk a higher court overturning it.

If you have questions about the amount you might be able to recover in a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit, contact a law firm with more than 200 years of combined experience. Call (888) 351-1038 or contact Marcari, Russotto, Spencer & Balaban online to schedule a free consultation.

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