When a plaintiff wins a personal injury lawsuit, there are several types of compensation he or she may be awarded. In this article, car accident lawyer Brent Wieand will explain the different kinds of compensation, and go over caps on damages in Pennsylvania.
Different Types of Compensation in a Personal Injury Case
In a criminal case, the burden of proof is one the prosecuting attorney, while the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Similarly, in a personal injury case, which civil rather than criminal, the plaintiff has the burden of proof upon the plaintiff. However, instead of using “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard, a civil case must be proved by “the preponderance of the evidence.” This is often described using a legal scale. If you look at all the evidence presented at trial, and if the plaintiff has one grain of sand more than the defendant in his favor, he/she has met his burden of proof.
In order to be awarded compensation, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant breached a legal responsibility called the duty of care, resulting in physical, emotional, and/or financial harm. (For more detailed information about proving negligence in a personal injury case, see our article about injuries on someone else’s property.)
One of the most important legal documents in a personal injury case is the complaint. The complaint acts as formal notice that the injured party, or plaintiff, intends to pursue compensation in court. The complaint acts like an introduction to the case, providing information about:
- The type and severity of injuries sustained.
- The parties who are being named as defendants. Defendants might be individuals or business organizations.
- The allegations being made against the defendant
- The damages, or compensation, being sought by the plaintiff.
Damages are divided into several different categories, which can overlap. For instance, certain compensatory damages could also be described as economic damages. The different types of damages are described below:
- Economic Damages – Economic damages are sometimes referred to as actual damages, and encompass monetary losses such as:
- Costs of replacing or repairing damaged personal property
- Funeral costs (in cases involving wrongful death)
- Lost wages and earnings
- Medical bills (e.g. surgical procedures, medical devices)
- Non-Economic Damages – This refers to compensation for losses which, despite having a negative effect on the plaintiff’s life, cannot readily be assigned a dollar value. Examples of non-economic damages include:
- Emotional distress
- Loss of companionship
- Loss of consortium (loss of a marital relationship)
- Pain and suffering
- Compensatory Damages – At first, it seems redundant to categorize compensation as “compensatory.” However, there’s good reason for the use of this terminology. Compensatory damages take their name from the fact that they are awarded solely for the purpose of compensating the plaintiff, distinguishing them from punitive damages (which we’ll discuss in just a moment). Compensatory damages could include:
- Loss of consortium
- Loss of earnings
- Medical bills
- Mental anguish
- Pain and suffering
- Punitive Damages – Punitive or exemplary damages are meant to punish the defendant (and to deter others from engaging in similar conduct), distinguishing them from compensatory damages. Punitive damages are awarded only in cases where the defendant’s conduct is exceptionally malicious or outrageous. In order to win punitive damages, the plaintiff must present “clear and convincing evidence” that the defendant engaged in “willful or wanton misconduct or reckless indifference to the rights of others.”
There is also a category known as nominal damages, though these are of little interest to most plaintiffs. Nominal damages are sometimes awarded in cases where the plaintiff’s rights were violated, but not in a way which caused a significant loss or injury. Thus, nominal damages tend to be modest.
Does Pennsylvania Have Damages Caps?
Some states cap compensatory damages. However, Pennsylvania is not among them. Pennsylvania does not impose caps on compensatory damages for injury or wrongful death cases, and in fact, such limitations are unconstitutional under the Pennsylvania Constitution.
However, there is an exception: lawsuits against Commonwealth parties. 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 8528 provides that “damages arising from the same cause of action… shall not exceed $250,000 in favor of any plaintiff or $1,000,000 in the aggregate.”
Under this statute, damages are recoverable for:
- Past and future loss of earnings caused by an injury.
- Pain and suffering experienced by the plaintiff.
- Dental and medical expenses, including prosthetic limbs, ambulance rides, physical therapy, and other costs.
- Loss of consortium.
- Costs associated with replacing damaged property.
- Note that, under this statute, property damage expenses may not be recovered in cases involving potholes “and other dangerous conditions.”
Additionally, damages from lawsuits against local agencies (“local parties”), such as school districts, are limited to $500,000. This is provided by 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 8553, which states that “damages arising from the same cause of action… shall not exceed $500,000 in the aggregate.” The recoverable damages under this statute are similar to those listed above, with three notable differences:
- Plaintiffs suing local agencies may also recover damages for “loss of support” in addition to loss of consortium.
- Property losses do not exclude losses arising from potholes and other dangerous conditions.
- Damages for pain and suffering are recoverable only in cases involving either (1) death, or (2) the “permanent loss of a bodily function, permanent disfigurement or permanent dismemberment where the medical and dental expenses… are in excess of $1,500.”
Absent intentional misconduct, punitive damages in medical malpractice cases are capped at 200% of the compensatory damages awarded. Moreover, 25% of any punitive damages awarded must go toward Pennsylvania’s MCARE Fund (Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error), rather than the plaintiff. In the words of the Pennsylvania Insurance Department, “Money in the fund is used to pay claims against participating health care providers and eligible entities for losses or damages awarded in medical professional liability actions.”
If you were injured in Philadelphia, you may be able to recover compensation to help cover your expenses and keep you and your family more comfortable as you go through this difficult time. To set up a private, free consultation, call premises liability attorney Brent Wieand at (800) 481-5206 today. Brent handles cases throughout Pennsylvania.