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Can Tort Statutes Limit Damage and Injury Awards on Catastrophic Accident Cases?

Can Tort Statutes Limit Damage and Injury Awards on Catastrophic Accident Cases?

For years, so-called "tort reform" advocates have tried to pass laws that seek to limit the amount of money that an accident victim can receive if he or she wins a personal injury lawsuit.

Tort Reform Basics

If someone has unfairly wronged you and it has caused you harm or financial loss, the legal system calls this a tort.

Personal injury lawsuits are one of the most common types of tort in the U.S. legal system. (A personal injury lawsuit allows a person who has been injured in an accident that was someone else's fault to collect money to pay for their accident-related expenses.)

A plaintiff who wins a personal injury lawsuit may be entitled to three types of compensation:

  • Actual damages reimburse an accident victim for his or her out-of-pocket costs incurred as a result of the accident. These would include medical expenses, lost wages, and the repair or replacement of property (such as clothing or a car) that were damaged or destroyed in the accident.
  • Non-economic damages attempt to put a value on accident-related losses that are hard to quantify, such as an accident victim's pain and suffering, emotional distress, or the loss or diminished use of a body party.
  • Punitive damages are intended to punish the person who caused the accident.

People and companies that advocate for tort reform usually support limits on non-economic damages and punitive damages. According to the American Tort Reform Association:

"These damages involve no direct economic loss and have no precise value. It is very difficult for juries to assign a dollar value to these losses, given the minimal guidance they customarily receive from the court. As a result, these awards tend to be erratic and, because of the highly charged environment of personal injury trials, excessive."

Tort reform opponents (which include many personal injury attorneys) argue that non-economic damages and punitive damages help hold wrongdoers accountable for their actions and, therefore, shouldn't be capped or limited. Furthermore, punitive and non-economic damages aren't awarded in all injury cases. According to

Punitive damages are not commonly sought or awarded, and when they are, amount to less than twice compensatory damages. According to the [U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics], punitive damages were sought in just five percent of all tort trials where plaintiffs won. The median punitive damage award was $55,000. There were too few medical malpractice cases in which punitive damages were awarded to provide a statistically reliable estimate of the amount of punitive damages in this category.

Will Tort Reform Limit Your Ability to Collect Damages?

Now that you understand the basics of tort reform, you're probably asking yourself, "Will tort reform keep me from collecting punitive or non-economic damages in my personal injury case?"

The short answer: Maybe.

The long answer: It depends on a number of factors, including the state in which your lawsuit is filed as well as the type of personal injury lawsuit you're filing. (In many states, for example, medical malpractice lawsuits have been the primary focus of tort reform efforts.) Plus, the laws are regularly changing, so where there might have been a limit last year, there might not be a limit this year. Or vice versa.

The best advice is to speak to a catastrophic accident attorney or personal injury lawyer to discuss the specific facts in your case. Your lawyer can review the details of your accident and the specific laws in the state in which the accident occurred, then determine whether you'll be subject to damages caps.

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