As a Houston, Texas attorney focusing on medical malpractice cases, people often ask me about how the tort reform caps work. These questions typically come up in one of two ways. The first is when I explain them to new clients. The second is when lawyers who do not handle medical malpractice matters refer cases to me or have questions.
The types of damages in a medical malpractice lawsuit
Generally speaking, there are two types of damages, or broad categories of money, that a jury can award in a Texas medical malpractice case. The first category is economic damages and the second is non-economic damages.
Economic damages are easy to understand and evaluate. It is easy for a jury to put a dollar sign to them because they consist of things like lost wages from the past, likely lost wages (earning capacity) in the future, past medical bills that have been paid or are still owed, future medical bills for additional healthcare, and loss of consortium (loss of a spousal or parent-child relationship).
On the other hand, non-economic damages are not as easy to nail down. Yet, they include very real, profound injuries that plaintiffs may sustain, things like mental anguish, pain and suffering, physical impairment, and disfigurement.
I am working right now on a case where a woman in her 40s needlessly died because of poor medical care, leaving behind a teenaged son and husband. To her family, we can all understand that the grief and pain from loss of their loved one is far more significant than what the family lost from her income. Yet, their most significant damages fall within the non-economic damages category.
What the caps do
Texas tort reform damages caps apply only to non-economic damages, and they work like this.
An award of non-economic damages against a hospital is capped at $250,000. If there are two or more hospitals involved in the same negligence, then the aggregate cap is $500,000.
When it comes to the negligence of doctors, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, pharmacists, and other human beings who are healthcare providers, the total non-economic damages cap is $250,000. That means if a plaintiff sues one doctor or 10 doctors, the total non-economic damages cap is $250,000.
The same caps apply to every plaintiff in a health care liability claim arising from the same facts, care, and treatment. In other words, let’s say that one spouse was the patient injured by medical negligence. Both the patient and his or her spouse may be plaintiffs in the medical malpractice for their separate injuries. The patient has physical and non-economic injuries, but the spouse has independent injuries that may include loss of consortium and mental anguish. Despite the fact that there are two plaintiffs, the same caps apply to all of their claims globally.
Juries are not told about tort reform caps. If a jury renders a verdict with a non-economic damages award that exceeds the cap, then the judge will reduce it accordingly.
What the caps don’t do
I have spoken with a lot of excellent lawyers who do not realize that the Texas tort reform caps only apply to non-economic damages. I am not critical of these attorneys because it is impossible to be up to speed on every area of the law. I focus on medical malpractice cases and would be the wrong person to help a client with a criminal, bankruptcy, or family law problem, for example.
Texas tort reform caps do not apply to economic damages.
If a plaintiff was injured from medical malpractice and will never be able to work again, the lost wages and earning capacity are not capped, whether the amount is $100,000 or $10 million.
The same is true for medical bills. I have handled many cases involving babies or children who developed severe brain injuries as a result of poor, substandard medical, nursing, and hospital care. If the medical care necessary to take care of a victim of medical negligence totals $10 million, then it is not capped by the Texas tort reform laws.
But beware, there's a separate wrongful death cap
If the patient doesn't survive the medical malpractice, but leaves behind a wrongul death beneficiary (defined by statute as a spouse, child, or parent), then the claim can proceed as a wrongful death lawsuit. Bear in mind that there's a separate inflation-adjusted cap that applies to all wrongful death damages. It's currently around $2 million.
We are here to help
I wrote an article once for The Houston Lawyer magazine, in which I described handling medical malpractice cases as being similar to navigating a minefield. When it comes to the complex Texas laws that apply to medical malpractice claims, hiring an attorney with experience in investigating and filing medical malpractice lawsuits can help you avoid a misstep and really make a difference.
For a free consultation about your potential case, call Painter Law Firm, in Houston, Texas, at 281-580-8800. In 2017, the Better Business Bureau designated our firm with an Award of Distinction for ethical and competent business practices.
Robert Painter is a former hospital administrator who is an attorney at Painter Law Firm PLLC, in Houston, Texas. He focuses his law practice on representing patients and family members in medical malpractice and wrongful death lawsuits against hospitals, doctors, surgeons, pharmacies, and other healthcare providers. In 2017, H Texas magazine named him one of Houston’s top lawyers.