Medical malpractice is a type of personal injury when a patient suffers an injury due to the negligence of a healthcare worker. In return, a victim of medical malpractice can sue the negligent healthcare worker to recover damages.
Some victims receive multi-million dollar awards from medical malpractice lawsuits, while others receive a few thousand dollars. In one lawsuit, in January, 2014, a 34-year old Stacey Galette was awarded over $60 million in a medical malpractice case where a botched procedure to remove an ectopic pregnancy resulted in her losing both of her legs.
There are many factors that go into determining the amount of a medical malpractice judgment including the types of damages that are recoverable in a particular case. The possible types of damages include compensatory damages, general damages, and punitive damages.
Special damages is a type of compensatory damage that compensates a victim for financial losses incurred from the injury. For example, medical expenses such as doctor’s bills, hospital bills, prescriptions, medical equipment, and therapists are all recoverable in a medical malpractice lawsuit as special damages. A victim can also recover money to pay for future medical bills as long as they can be estimated with a reasonable degree of certainty.
Special damages also include lost wages and loss of future earnings. If the victim misses work and is not paid for that missed time, the victim can sue to recover those loss wages. Even if it the victim gets paid but used paid sick or vacation days, the defendant would have to reimburse the victim for the value of the used sick or vacation days.
General damages compensate a victim for losses that are not easily quantifiable. Examples of general damages include pain and suffering, loss of consortium, and loss of enjoyment of life; it is often difficult to put a dollar figure on these types of losses. For pain and suffering, the court will consider the severity of the injury caused by the healthcare worker’s negligence. Where there is permanent damage or disfigurement, such as a scar, the award for pain and suffering or loss of enjoyment of life will be higher than in cases where there is no permanent injury.
In the case of Stacey Galette who lost both legs, the bulk of her award was for general damages. The jury awarded her $20 million for past pain and suffering, $38 million for future pain and suffering, and $4 million with interest for medical expenses.
Punitive damages are awarded in medical malpractice cases where the actions of the defendant were so outrageous that the court feels that the defendant deserves punishment. For example, if a surgeon was intoxicated while operating on a patient, and as a result botched the procedure, a court might feel that punitive damages are warranted.
When victims are award particularly large damage awards it is often because punitive damages have been awarded. Punitive damages are controversial. Some view them as windfalls and believe the amount often has little relation to the extent of the injury; because of this, several state legislatures have passed legislation that limits punitive damage awards in medical malpractice cases. For example, Alaska and Florida limit punitive damage awards to $500,000 or 3 times the amount of compensatory (general and special) damages, while Virginia and New Jersey limit punitive damages to $350,000 or 5 times compensatory damages.
Medical malpractice sometimes results in the death of a patient. While punitive damages are controversial, isn’t it reasonable that whenever medical malpractice results in death, the heirs of the victim should be entitled to punitive damages? After all, many would argue that there is no injury more severe than that which results in death.