Damages Caps in California

When a person suffers injuries as a result of another person or entity violating the law, the injured person can recover monetary compensation for the harm that was done to them. In personal injury cases, this is most often the result of negligence. Examples of negligent behavior that could result in damages include a person texting while driving and causing a car accident, or a doctor performing surgery on a person’s right hand when they were meant to do the procedure on the left.

The amount of damages a person can collect as a result of a negligent act depend on how severely they were injured, how the injury will impact their future health and employment, and also on what the defendant did, and whether the defendant did something that was particularly egregious.

While juries typically decide the amount of damages that the plaintiff should receive, there are some instances where state laws will put a “cap” on damages, which can lead to an award being reduced if the jury decided that the plaintiff was entitled to more than the permitted amount.

How do damages caps function and when are they used?

Caps placed on damages typically impact non-economic damages, but not economic damages. Economic damages are ones that are based on the medical expenses, lost wages, and property damages a person suffered. Even though economic damages involve some need for estimation because they have to account for future medical care and future loss of income, they are based on real number estimates and predictions. Non-economic damages are different because they compensate for pain, suffering, emotional distress, and disfigurement. Deciding the fair dollar amount of compensation that person forced to live with a disfiguring scar for the rest of their life is far more subjective than estimating the amount of future earnings a person will lose because they can no longer perform their job functions as a result of their injuries.

As such, many states cap non-economic damages to avoid situations where there is concern that juries would award exorbitant sums to injured plaintiffs. In California, non-economic damages are only capped in cases of medical malpractice. A patient injured in California as a result of a medical professional’s negligent treatment will only be able to recover a maximum of $250,000.

While some other states have caps on all non-economic damages, California is not one of them.

Punitive damages are sometimes capped

Punitive damages are not actually compensation for the injured person. Instead, punitive damages are meant to punish a defendant for particularly wrongful actions, such as when a defendant knowingly, maliciously, or fraudulently caused an injury to the plaintiff. Punitive damages are sometimes extremely high, especially when the defendant is a corporation and the jurors feel that only a very high sum would actually serve as punishment. While some states cap punitive awards, California does not.  However, there are Constitutional limitations on the amount of punitive damages.


Why are medical malpractice damages treated differently?

From one perspective, it seems strange cap only medical malpractice damages. For instance, whether a person suffers a debilitating injury from a doctor’s negligence or the same debilitating injury from a negligent driver, the injured person is left in the same condition. Why should the doctor’s liability be limited when the driver’s is not?  The cap was set in 1975 allegedly to keep healthcare providers financially solvent.

If you have suffered an injury as the result of another person’s negligence, you probably have a lot of questions about what to do next. At Milligan, Beswick, Levine & Knox, our experienced personal injury attorneys are ready to advocate for you and guide you through the process. Contact us today at 909-798-3300 for a free consultation.