Punitive Damages and Medical Malpractice

If you ever have the misfortune to get hurt because of someone else's negligence or their poor conduct, you can feel victimized because there was nothing that you did to deserve your injuries and your other losses. It can often feel unfair because, typically, there was nothing that you could have done to avoid the accident and your injuries.

If you get hurt in a situation of medical malpractice, the frustration that you feel can be even more extreme because you were counting on those medical professionals to make your medical malady better, not worse, and because you were completely powerless to avoid or prevent your injuries from happening.

In some extreme cases, the medical care that you received was so horrendous that it can leave you feeling targeted. In these cases, you deserve to be compensated for your injuries, and the offender deserves to be penalized for their terrible conduct by being made to pay punitive damages for what they have done to you.

Compensatory and Punitive Damages in Personal Injury Law

In a typical personal injury case in Maryland – medical malpractice is a type of personal injury claim – there are two kinds of damages that a victim and plaintiff can receive:

  1. Compensatory damages, and
  2. Punitive damages.

Compensatory damages are meant to bring the victim back to where they stood before the accident happened and they were hurt. Because courts cannot turn back time to before the accident occurred, compensatory damages are the best way to ensure that the victim does not suffer injuries and other losses and have to pay for them, as well. In a medical malpractice case, these compensatory damages include economic damages that cover a victim's medical expenses, lost wages, and earning potential, as well as non-economic damages for the victim's pain and suffering and his or her family's loss of companionship.

While compensatory damages are meant to make the victim whole, punitive damages are meant to deter the wrongdoer's conduct. As a result, punitive damages are rare in a personal injury case: Personal injury and medical malpractice cases almost always involve someone who negligently causes an accident. Because there is no way to deter negligence – it is impossible to negligently hurt someone else on purpose – courts find little reason to add punitive damages on to a successful personal injury lawsuit. This is especially the case in the context of medical malpractice, where doctors rarely hurt their patients intentionally. However, there are situations where punitive damages are available in a medical malpractice case.

Punitive Damages in Maryland Medical Malpractice Claims

Punitive damages are very rare in medical malpractice claims in Maryland because our state's supreme court, in the case Owens-Illinois, Inc. v. Zenobia, decided that punitive damages could not be awarded unless a plaintiff is able to show that there was “actual malice” on the part of the wrongdoer. This decision has been reaffirmed again and again by Maryland courts, most recently in the 2017 case Rockman v. Union Carbide Corp., which also recognized how difficult it can be for plaintiffs and malpractice victims make this showing, claiming that, “after Zenobia, punitive damages are reserved for punishing the most heinous of intentional” wrongdoers.

Showing that a doctor or surgeon intentionally hurt you or deliberately caused you serious harm through their medical practice is an uphill struggle that very few malpractice claims are able to win. However, medical malpractice comes in a variety of shapes and forms, and are not all medical professionals making mistakes in the operating room or misdiagnosing something in a clinic. Surgical equipment can be defective, as well, or medical drugs can be rushed through the approval process without being adequately tested in order to make pharmaceutical companies a quicker and larger profit. In some cases, these examples of recklessness and absolute greed can amount to the “actual malice” standard of conduct that is so “heinous” to make punitive damages warranted in a medical malpractice claim in Maryland.

For example, in the personal injury case Philip Morris USA v. Williams – a rare personal injury case that made it to the Supreme Court of the United States – punitive damages were allowed against the cigarette manufacturer for deceitfully claiming that it was safe to smoke, so long as those punitive damages were for damages that were inflicted on the plaintiffs before the court.

Damage Caps for Medical Malpractice Claims in Maryland

As a part of the “tort reform” movement, Maryland lawmakers have passed laws that limit the amount of non-economic damages that you can recover in a medical malpractice claim in our state. In theory, these laws lower the cost of healthcare by reducing the amount that doctors and healthcare professionals have to spend in malpractice insurance. However, in reality, they mean that innocent malpractice victims are frequently left without the full compensation they need and deserve to make a complete recovery.

Luckily, these damage caps, encapsulated in Maryland Courts and Judicial Proceedings Code § 3-2A-09, only apply to the non-economic damages that you can receive in a malpractice claim, not to any punitive damages that you receive.

Maryland Medical Malpractice Attorneys Can Help

Punitive damages are rarely available in medical malpractice cases in Maryland. However, just because they are rare does not mean that they never happen: Only that, when they do happen, they are for the kinds of egregious conduct that make them all the more important to pursue.

With healthcare in the United States existing as a for-profit venture, recklessness in medical facilities and putting the lives of patients at risk in order to maximize profit are practices that are only barely under the surface. The chances of facing punitive damages work as a deterrent to hospitals cutting even more corners than they already do. The medical malpractice attorneys at the Maryland law office of Gilman & Bedigian know this and are set to pursue punitive damages whenever a particularly egregious case of malpractice comes to light.

Contact us online or call us at (800) 529-6162 for a free consultation to help you understand your rights and how to best enforce them.

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If someone you are close to has been seriously injured or worse, you are naturally devastated not only by what has happened, but by the effect that the injury or loss has had on you and your family. At a time when you're vulnerable, traumatized and emotionally exhausted, you need a team that will support you through the often complex process that lies ahead.

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