How Can a Damages Cap Affect Your Injury Case?

iStock_000015879466_LargeDamages caps, which vary from state to state, can have a major impact on your lawsuit.

When you file a personal injury claim, there are two types of damages you can receive for your injuries: economic damages and non-economic damages. Economic damages represent the tangible, specific costs incurred by your injury, including medical bills, property damage, and lost income from days away from work. Non-economic damages, on the other hand, represent the non-tangible losses, such as emotional distress, pain and suffering, and loss or companionship or consortium.

Damages caps limit the amount of non-economic damages you can win in a personal injury case. The limit on non-economic damages in the state of California is $250,000. In other words, no matter how much the judge or jury decides the non-economic damages should be in your case, your actual amount cannot exceed $250,000.

Non-economic damages for medical malpractice cases are also limited to $250,000 in California. This cap was established by the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act in 1975. (Interestingly enough, this has become a point of contention among damage cap critics. Since the law does not account for inflation, the $250,000 cap is the same now as it was in 1975 when the law was enacted.) This cap was introduced as a way to reduce the high cost of medical malpractice claims; when victims of medical malpractice are awarded millions of dollars in non-economic damages, the malpractice insurance carrier must pay out this amount, creating a chain reaction of increased costs that are eventually passed on to patients.

Keep in mind that damages caps only apply to non-economic damages. As long as you are able to prove your losses, you are eligible to recover the full amount of medical bills, lost income, property damage, decreased earning potential, and other economic damages.

These caps are controversial because they place a “one size fits all” ceiling on damage awards for those injured or killed by someone else’s negligence. Caps take away the judge’s or jury’s authority to award fair compensation for non-economic damages. For example, say a 35-year-old man went to the hospital for surgery on his left leg, but the doctors performed surgery on the right leg instead; as a result, the medical situation in his left leg got worse, not to mention the added pain and suffering of an unnecessary surgery. The jury decides that his pain and suffering, the weeks spent away from work, and the ongoing discomfort amounted to $500,000 in non-economic damages. Rather than receiving $500,000 in non-economic damages (in addition to the economic damages), the plaintiff would only receive half that amount—despite the jury’s decision.

It is rare that non-economic damages reach the $250,000 threshold, and as such, this damage cap typically affects severely injured plaintiffs. While the cap may not affect a wide range of Californians, it certainly has an impact on those who deserve compensation the most—those whose lives will be forever changed by the incident.


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