If a doctor makes a medical mistake that causes injury, the injury victim deserves to be compensated for their losses, including medical bills, lost income, and suffering for any unnecessary pain. However, what if a doctor was intentionally careless or lied about their medical errors? Shouldn’t the doctor be punished for their harmful actions? Damages in court that are intended to punish the wrongdoer are known as punitive damages.
Punitive damages may be available to punish a doctor’s wanton or willful misconduct. However, it can be more difficult to prove willful or wanton misconduct than professional negligence. For this reason, punitive damages are rare in medical malpractice lawsuits. If you have questions about what kinds of damages are available in your medical injury claim, talk to your experienced medical malpractice team for legal advice.
What Are Punitive Damages?
Punitive damages include money paid to the injury victim to punish the wrongdoer for their actions. Also known as exemplary damages, these types of damages are intended to send a message to the defendant and others that their reckless actions can end up costing them. These damages can also dissuade others from engaging in similar harmful actions in the future.
Damages is the term for the monetary award in a civil lawsuit, including personal injury, car accident, and medical malpractice cases. There are different types of damages available in medical malpractice lawsuits. Damages available in a lawsuit can include:
- Economic damages
- Non-economic damages
- Punitive damages
- Attorney’s fees
Generally, the most common type of damages awarded in medical malpractice cases are compensatory damages. Compensatory damages are supposed to “compensate” the injury victim for their losses. These damages are intended to put the injury victim into a similar place they would have been but for the medical injury.
Compensatory damages in a medical malpractice lawsuit are generally categorized as economic or noneconomic damages. Economic damages cover the financial costs of the injury, including medical bills, loss of income, and compensation for any future costs and expenses related to the injury. Non-economic damages cover losses that may not have a clear dollar value, such as emotional distress, loss of enjoyment in life, and pain and suffering.
Attorney fees can be claimed in some medical malpractice cases. Legal costs and court costs for a medical malpractice case can be high. Malpractice lawsuits can take years before they are finally concluded in trial or settlement. If the court awards the winning side legal costs and attorneys fees, it can offset the costs of the lawsuit for the side that won the case. For an injury victim, recovering attorney fees can increase their award and put more money in their pocket.
When Are Punitive Damages Available in Medical Malpractice Cases?
Punitive damages generally do not apply in cases where an injury was caused by a simple mistake or an error. Accidents happen all the time. Under U.S. civil tort law, the wrongdoer, or the person who caused the accident, should be held accountable for damage caused by their actions. However, the wrongdoer should not necessarily be made an example of by punishing them for their mistake.
The standard for when punitive damages may be available in a medical malpractice case can depend on the state. For example, in a case in Pennsylvania, a court found that:
“Punitive damages will lie only in cases of outrageous behavior, where the defendant’s egregious conduct shows either an evil motive or reckless indifference to the rights of others. Punitive damages are appropriate when an individual’s actions are of such an outrageous nature as to demonstrate intentional, willful, wanton, or reckless conduct.” Dubose v. Quinlan, 125 A.3d 1231, 1240 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2015).
Other standards for punitive damages may include conduct characterized by evil motive, ill will, fraud, or intent to injure. For example, if a doctor caused a patient serious injury because of a surgical error, and the doctor later changed the medical records to hide evidence of their wrongdoing, the fraud of lying about the causes of the injury may convince a jury to award punitive damages to the injury victim to punish the doctor for their actions.
Can I Leave It Up to the Jury to Decide Punitive Damages?
Generally, the jury decides how much to award in damages in a medical malpractice case. However, for a jury to consider punitive damages, the plaintiff has to meet certain threshold requirements to show that there is enough evidence to support a claim for punitive damages. In medical malpractice lawsuits where the plaintiff initially makes a demand for punitive damages, they may be thrown out before the case goes to the jury.
As part of the pretrial motions for a civil lawsuit, the defendant may try to have some or all of the case dismissed through a request for “summary judgment.” The standard for summary judgment is where the plaintiff is given all favorable inferences but even with everything considered in favor of the plaintiff, the plaintiff does not establish a cause of action.
For example, if a doctor file a request for summary judgment on punitive damages, if the judge finds that, even giving all favorable inferences to the plaintiff, the evidence presented does not establish that the defendant’s actions or omissions were motivated by malice, wanton, or willful disregard for the patient’s health and safety.
Punitive Damages in Psychiatric Treatment Cases
Psychiatrists are medical doctors that diagnose and treat both the mental and physical aspects of psychological problems. In cases where the patient is injured by negligent psychiatric treatment, the injury victim is generally limited to compensatory damages. However, if the psychiatrist’s treatment is egregious, reckless, malicious, or intentional, then punitive damages may be available.
According to the Journal of Lifelong Learning in Psychiatry, “Punitive damages are usually not assessed against defendants whose negligent conduct was merely accidental. Fortunately, punitive damages are not common in psychiatric malpractice cases, except sexual misconduct, because negligent behavior is more likely accidental rather than grossly reckless or intentional.”
Punitive Damages in Court Cases
The Bureau of Justice Statistics presented findings on civil lawsuits requesting or awarded punitive damages in 2005. The report includes medical malpractice lawsuits but includes other types of civil claims, including personal injury and property damage claims.
According to the report, litigants requested punitive damages in 12% of civil trials. When punitive damages were requested and the plaintiff won the case, punitive damages were awarded in 30% of those cases. The median punitive damages award was about $64,000. 13% of cases with punitive damages awarded received punitive damages of $1 million or more.
However, punitive damages are much more rare in medical malpractice lawsuits. According to the report, “Several prevalent case categories, including medical malpractice, automobile accident, and premises liability, recorded punitive damages being awarded in 1% or less of cases.”
Chicago Medical Malpractice and Punitive Damages
Illinois takes a harsh stance on punitive damages in medical malpractice cases. According to 735 ILCS 5/2-1115, “Punitive damages not recoverable in healing art and legal malpractice cases. In all cases, whether in tort, contract or otherwise, in which the plaintiff seeks damages by reason of legal, medical, hospital, or other healing art malpractice, no punitive, exemplary, vindictive or aggravated damages shall be allowed.”
Make sure you talk to your Chicago medical malpractice attorney before you give up on trying to recover punitive damages. There may be other causes of action in a medical malpractice case that could allow you to recover punitive damages, including injuries caused by defective medicine, defective products, or other personal injury claims.
If a doctor or healthcare provider is found to be liable for punitive damages in a medical malpractice case, their medical malpractice insurance may not cover the awarded damages. An insurer may not reimburse an insured for punitive damages assessed because of the insured’s own conduct. This may mean that the doctor has to pay for punitive damages out of their own pocket.
Medical Malpractice and Punitive Damages in Pennsylvania
Many states have a cap on noneconomic damages awarded in a medical malpractice lawsuit. Some states also put a cap on punitive damages, generally as a percentage of the economic damage awarded.
In Pennsylvania, the Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error Fund Act (Mcare) was signed into law in 2002. Under 40 Pa. Stat. Section 1303.505:
“Punitive damages may be awarded for conduct that is the result of the health care provider’s willful or wanton conduct or reckless indifference to the rights of others. In assessing punitive damages, the trier of fact can properly consider the character of the health care provider’s act, the nature and extent of the harm to the patient that the health care provider caused or intended to cause and the wealth of the health care provider.”
However, the amount of punitive damages available is limited to 200% of the compensatory damages awarded. For example, in a birth injury lawsuit, the injury victim asks for compensatory damages and punitive damages. If the jury awards $1.5 million in compensatory damages, the maximum punitive damages available would be $3 million, for a total award of $4.5 million.
The punitive damages award is not given solely to the injury victim. As part of the Mcare Act, “upon the entry of a verdict including an award of punitive damages, the punitive damages portion of the award shall be allocated as follows:
- 75% shall be paid to the prevailing party; and
- 25% shall be paid to the Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error fund.”
Model Punitive Damages Act
The National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws drafted model punitive damages laws, as a guide for states who may want to standardize their punitive damages statutes. Under the model law, to be awarded punitive damages, the plaintiff has to:
- “by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant maliciously intended to cause the injury or consciously and flagrantly disregarded the rights or interests of others in causing the injury; and
- an award is necessary to punish the defendant for the conduct or to deter the defendant from similar conduct in like circumstances.”
Jury Instructions for Punitive Damages
Before a jury decides whether to award punitive damages, the judge gives the jury instructions for how they are to consider the question. Jury instructions can vary by state. As an example, the U.S. Court’s model civil jury instructions for punitive damages provide for the following:
“You may award punitive damages only if you find that the defendant’s conduct that harmed the plaintiff was malicious, oppressive, or in reckless disregard of the plaintiff’s rights.”
- Malicious: “Conduct is malicious if it is accompanied by ill will, or spite, or if it is for the purpose of injuring the plaintiff.”
- Reckless: “Conduct is in reckless disregard of the plaintiff’s rights if, under the circumstances, it reflects complete indifference to the plaintiff’s safety or rights, or if the defendant acts in the face of a perceived risk that its actions will violate the plaintiff’s rights under federal law.”
- Oppressive: “An act or omission is oppressive if the defendant injures or damages or otherwise violates the rights of the plaintiff with unnecessary harshness or severity, such as by misusing or abusing authority or power or by taking advantage of some weakness or disability or misfortune of the plaintiff.”
How to Hold Dangerous Doctors Accountable For Medical Injuries
You should not have to suffer the consequences of a medical injury caused by a negligent doctor. Even though compensatory damages will never reverse the damage, a monetary award can help compensate you for your losses, including loss of income, medical bills, and pain and suffering. If the doctor went even further, and committed fraud, intended to cause injury, or took advantage of a patient, punitive damages can send a powerful message.
If you are eligible to receive punitive damages, it can increase your malpractice award to help you through the difficult recovery process. Punitive damages can also make an example of the dangerous doctor to prevent them from causing similar harm to others. A punitive damages award can also help improve care in the medical industry by showing that dangerous doctors can be costly for hospitals and insurance providers, which can help others avoid a similar medical error injury.
Contact experienced trial attorneys who have successfully represented medical error victims and their families to recover financial compensation. Take the first step in recovery by calling a malpractice lawyer to find out more about your case and what kind of damages you can recover. For a free consultation, contact Gilman & Bedigian online or at 800-529-6162.