Across the country, many states have laws capping jury awards in medical malpractice cases. Thirty-four out of fifty states now have at least some law on the books limiting the amount of damages a successful plaintiff may recover in a malpractice lawsuit. For now, however, a victim of medical malpractice in New Hampshire does not have such a limit. But what would it mean if the New Hampshire legislature does decide to establish a medical malpractice recovery limit? And why would they do it?
How Does a Medical Malpractice Recovery Cap Work?
Healthcare providers engage in medical malpractice when they provide substandard care that causes injury to one of their patients. This entitles that patient to recover “damages,” monetary compensation, from the healthcare provider for the harm they have suffered. A “recovery cap” or “recovery limit” establishes a maximum amount of money that a patient may receive from a jury or from a settlement with a healthcare provider based on medical malpractice, even if a jury were to decide to award more.
Further, damages can be divided into “economic” and “non-economic” damages. Economic damages are calculated by adding up the costs, bills, and other liabilities that a patient suffers due to injury; non-economic damages are harder to calculate, as they arise from intangible sources such as pain and suffering or physical impairment. Other states also allow for “punitive damages,” which are intended solely to punish the defendant, but New Hampshire does not allow punitive damages unless a statute specifically permits them.
Depending on the state, a recovery cap may apply differently to these different types of damages. For example, in New Mexico all non-economic and non-punitive damages are capped at $600,000, and limits personal liability for the healthcare provider at $200,000. Michigan, on the other hand, caps non-economic damages normally at $476,600, but has a higher cap of $851,000 for certain types of permanent injuries, as well as adjusting the actual amounts of these caps for inflation annually. Louisiana takes a simpler approach than both states, capping total damages in these cases at $500,000, and limiting personal liability for health care providers to $100,000 while paying out any additional damages from a compensation fund.
Why Would States Limit Medical Malpractice Damages?
Unlike other injury victims, someone injured by a doctor or other medical provider may be limited in their recovery. This raises a serious question – why treat victims injured by a doctor different from someone injured in a car accident, a slip and fall, or any other injury? Those in favor of recovery caps claim that these measures prevent excessive awards based on emotional decisions, and drive healthcare costs down overall. Based on this notion, the United States Congress even introduced legislation in 2017 that could cap the recovery amount nationwide, even in states that have not introduced such a limit, but it has not passed the Senate as of yet.
However, contrary to what proponents suggest, research indicates that costs for Medicare Part B increase with the installation of damage caps. Research also shows that patient safety gradually decreases after states install caps on recovery for medical malpractice, as healthcare providers no longer face the threat of having to provide complete damages in the event of a lawsuit. There is also no apparent link between the number of available physicians and the existence of a recovery cap for malpractice.
What Does This Mean for New Hampshire Residents?
It is possible that New Hampshire will not follow in this legal trend as other states have. Arizona’s and Wyoming’s state Constitutions do not allow for the creation of a medical malpractice recovery cap, and in Missouri the recovery cap law was ruled by the state’s Supreme Court to be unconstitutional. In fact, the New Hampshire Supreme Court has also ruled before that caps on recovery for medical negligence are unconstitutional.
On the other hand, this New Hampshire ruling is now over forty years old, and it is possible, if unlikely, that the current Supreme Court would find no issues with the imposing of a recovery cap for medical malpractice. New Mexico’s law limiting recovery in medical malpractice cases survived a challenge to its constitutionality just last year. Further, if such a cap were put into place and not struck down by the court as unconstitutional, then it could become much more difficult for plaintiffs to recover for their pain and suffering. Until such a law is passed, however, plaintiffs can still recover fully for their medical malpractice injuries in New Hampshire.
If you believe that you have been the victim of medical malpractice, you need counsel on your side who know the law and who specialize in pursuing medical malpractice claims. The attorneys at Douglas, Leonard, & Garvey can be reached at (603) 288-1403 or through our online contact form.