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Non-Economic Damages and the Role They Play in Medical Malpractice Claims

Medicine has come a long way in the last 100 years. People can now survive conditions that would have killed them back then.

Society owes a lot to the skilled professionals who are at the forefront in the fight against disease and injury. Physicians spend years on the job learning their profession. They work long hours and sacrifice a lot.

Most of us have an idea that because they are well-paid, they will have no trouble meeting their day to day business expenses. What the public doesn't understand is that health insurance reimbursements have gone down in the past ten years. If a surgeon charges $5000 for a certain surgery, the insurance company will typically only pay $2000 of that procedure. Office visits for $100, or typically reimbursed at $30. When you multiply these numbers by every patient, it becomes a little easier to see some of the problems doctors face.

Increasing Costs Cause Problems

Physicians, nurses, and other medical professionals are required to carry and insurance called medical liability insurance. This is a form of professional liability that covers claims made for personal injuries. The premiums for this insurance have increased exponentially in the last decade.

Burdened by the high cost of malpractice insurance premiums, doctors began to protest. They faced unprecedented economic difficulty not only from malpractice insurance premiums, but also from decreased health insurance reimbursements. As costs continue to escalate, incomes went down. The doctors informed the public that many of them would have to close their practices, move to other states, or stop offering certain services without reform to the malpractice system.

Insurance companies also played a role in the debacle. For years, companies kept professional liability insurance premiums low. As lawsuit damage dollar amounts rose, insurance companies realized too late that they had charged premiums that were too low. In response, they raised premiums across the board. Feeling the pressure from their clients, insurance companies lashed out at trial lawyers blaming them for increased costs.

Legislators in many states heard the cry from the healthcare industry and responded. They enacted tort reform legislation by placing caps on punitive damages and pain and suffering. Injured parties typically faced $250,000 limits for pain and suffering.

What are Noneconomic Damages?

Compensatory damages consist of both economic and noneconomic amounts. Economic damages include lost wages, medical expenses, and expenses required for life care. Non-economic damages are harder to define because placing a value on pain, suffering, and life altering events is next to impossible.

Malpractice cases rarely meet the definition for punitive damages. For willful misconduct, punitive damages exist to punish the perpetrator. In this case, the plaintiff’s attorneys would have to prove that the healthcare professional willfully sought to harm the patient or was reckless before they could collect punitive damages.

More commonly, pain and suffering is awarded by jury members to compensate an injured party for the difficulties they have already suffered or will suffer in the future due to the harm caused by the defendant. Juries are made up of common people with no medical background. They often sympathize more with patients than with healthcare professionals and end up awarding high dollar amounts. Before they identify the award amount, jury members must judge the value for damage caused to injured areas such as limbs, eyes, organ or emotional trauma caused by the injury itself or the loss of a loved one. This is a difficult task to assign to anyone. Critics argue healthcare professionals are more qualified to assess liability for pain and suffering than laypeople.

What Information Do Statistics Provide?

In reviewing statistics from malpractice lawsuits, experts found that noneconomic damages were the major cause of rising judgment amounts. State lawmakers across the nation agreed and began writing tort reform legislation. They placed caps on noneconomic damage awards hoping to discourage unwarranted lawsuits.

The issue of overburdened physicians reached the ears of the President Bush and Republicans in Congress. In 2005, President Bush urged the U.S. Congress to pass tort reform legislation that would override state tort laws. Congressional Democrats opposed the legislation, and it was never passed. State legislators did not want to see the federal government overturn state laws, because tort legislation has traditionally been governed by the states.

Tort reform has been a controversial issue around the nation. On one side, insurance companies and healthcare professionals sought much-needed relief from the costs of malpractice lawsuits. At the same time, patients’ rights groups argued that limits should not be placed on any compensatory damages available to injured patients.

The debate continues around the nation. While the solutions governing tort reform may not be perfect, they have contributed to reduced costs for insurance companies and healthcare professionals. All parties must continue working to find the best solutions possible for the sake of healthcare professionals and patients alike.