In California, the only time there is a damage cap in a personal injury case is for non-economic damages in medical malpractice claims. In these cases, victims can only recover $250,000 for their non-economic damages, no matter how badly they were hurt.
But if Assembly Bill 35 passes, starting in 2023 the non-economic damages cap will increase to $350,000 in non-death cases and to half a million dollars in wrongful death cases. And then the caps will increase incrementally through 2033 to $750,000 in non-death cases to $1 million in wrongful death cases. (This bill is not retroactive and applies only to cases filed on January 1, 2023 or after.)
These non-economic damages include compensation for
- pain and suffering,
- loss of consortium, and
- loss of enjoyment of life.
Are there damage caps in California personal injury cases?
Generally, there are no damage caps for personal injury cases in California. However, there is one important exception: Non-economic damages are capped at $250,000 in medical malpractice claims.1
A damage cap limits how much compensation a victim can recover for his or her losses. It puts a cap on how much the victim will be awarded, even if he or she has suffered severe injuries and deserves far more.
For the most part, there are no damage caps in personal injury cases brought in California. The personal injury cases that have no damage caps include claims for injuries that happened due to a(n):
In these cases, victims can recover all of the compensation that they deserve for their injuries.
Medical malpractice claims are an exception, though. California lawmakers have singled these types of lawsuits out for a cap on damages. California’s damage cap limits medical malpractice victims to $250,000 for all of their non-economic damages.2 This medical malpractice damage cap comes from the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act, or MICRA. This tort reform act went into effect in 1975.
What is a medical malpractice case?
A medical malpractice case is a type of personal injury lawsuit. It involves the negligence of a healthcare provider in the course of rendering medical care that the professional is licensed to provide. If that medical negligence is the proximate cause of an injury or wrongful death, the medical professional and his or her medical institution may be held liable for the result. Victims can hold them liable through a medical malpractice claim.3
Medical malpractice claims can be filed against medical professionals, individually, or the professional’s medical institution. Potential defendants include:
- doctor’s offices,
- psychologists, and
Some common examples of medical malpractice situations include:
- failing to diagnose a readily diagnosable medical condition,
- performing surgery on the wrong body part,
- operating on the wrong patient,
- giving the wrong drugs to the patient, and
- leaving surgical equipment inside the patient.
Many of these instances of malpractice are severe or life-threatening. Some are fatal. That victims in California are only allowed to recover $250,000 to cover their non-economic damages is often seen as controversial.
What are non-economic damages?
Non-economic damages are a form of compensation for accident victims. It covers their:
- emotional distress,
- loss of quality of life,
- loss of consortium for their loved ones,
- emotional trauma for disfigurement, and
- loss of life’s enjoyments due to a disability.
Under California law, there are 2 types of legal damages:
Compensatory damages are those that are meant to make the victim whole, once again. They compensate the victim for all of the ways that they have suffered from the accident.
Punitive damages are those that are meant to punish the defendant for especially wrongful conduct. If they are awarded, they result in a windfall for the victim. However, they are extremely rare in cases based on accidents that were caused by the defendant’s negligence.
Compensatory damages are further broken down into 2 categories:
- economic damages, and
- non-economic damages.
Economic damages compensate the victim for losses that are easy to state in an amount of money. They generally cover expenses that can be found on a bill or a receipt. They include compensation for the victim’s:
- medical bills, including reasonably anticipated future medical expenses,
- lost income,
- loss of earning capacity, and
- property damage.
Non-economic damages compensate the victim for things that are not easy to put into a dollar amount, like:
- physical pain and suffering,
- mental anguish,
- emotional distress from the injured patient’s impairments, and
- the loss of consortium felt by the victim’s family.
In many cases, especially severe instances of medical malpractice, the amount of a victim’s non-economic damages can far surpass his or her economic damages. Personal injury attorneys often use the “multiplier method” to estimate how much compensation a victim will recover for his or her non-economic losses. Under this method, all of the victim’s economic damages are added together. The resulting number is then multiplied by between 1 and 5 to estimate the victim’s non-economic damage award. The more severe the victim’s injuries, the higher the number used by personal injury lawyers.
The wide range used for the multiplier method reflects just how difficult it is to guess how a potential jury will react to your claim. Jury awards for pain and suffering damages in personal injury claims are infamously inconsistent. However, the high numbers show just how controversial it is to institute non-economic damage caps in California medical malpractice cases.
Why is the MICRA damage cap in medical malpractice lawsuits controversial?
In California, the $250,000 damage cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice claims from the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA) is controversial for several reasons:
- it is not adjusted for inflation,
- it is lower than in nearly all other states that have a similar damage cap,
- it stems from the so-called “tort reform” movement lobbied by insurance companies and medical providers, and
- it prevents victims from recovering the full amount of compensation they deserve.
Nevertheless, the damage cap has been ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court of California.4
- California Civil Code 3333.2 CIV. See also Assembly Bill 35.
- See California Civil Code 3333.1(2) CIV and California Code of Civil Procedure 340.5(2) CCP.
- Fein v. Permanente Medical Group, 38 Cal.3d 137 (1985).