When a person is injured by another person’s negligence the injured person has the right to recover all the damages incurred. Damages include both economic losses (lost income-medical expenses etc.) and non-economic losses (loss of enjoyment of life, disfigurement, pain and suffering etc.). A more complete discussion of damages can be found in this earlier blog post.
Succumbing to lobbying pressure from big dollar interests, however, in 1987 the Idaho Legislature adopted a bad idea and in 2003 doubled down on that bad idea. That bad idea was imposing an arbitrary limit on non-economic damages. In 1987 the initial “cap” on damages was set at $400,000.00 and in 2003 it was reduced to $250,000.00. These are part and parcel of the so-called tort reform movement that is based on a whole series of myths. Such tort reform laws, in Idaho and elsewhere, only have three goals:
- To make it more difficult for injured people to file a lawsuit;
- To make it more difficult for injured people to obtain a jury trial; and
- To limit the amount of money injured people receive in a lawsuit.
While very few cases have high non-economic damages, Idaho’s law added another injury on top of those already suffered by the most unfortunate people.
Think about a 7 year old child made quadriplegic because the driver of an 18-wheel truck ran over her family’s minivan. She would get pennies a day to pay for her loss of an ordinary life. Other examples of non-economic damages include losses such as: having a first-born child killed by a trucker asleep at the wheel; losing your arm or a leg or both because of a carelessly constructed balcony; spending your life confined to a wheelchair after being hit by a drunk driver; going through life with disfiguring burns of the face and torso because of a slipshod wiring job; or living without your mother, father or spouse who died because the insurance company refused to pay for needed medical care.
To understand why caps are bad for ordinary people it is helpful to look a bit more closely at the losses for which an injured person has the right to recover when hurt by someone else bad acts. Under Idaho law a jury is instructed to award the following damages proven in the case:A. Non-Economic damages 1. The nature of the injuries; 2. The physical and mental pain and suffering, past and future; 3. The impairment of abilities to perform usual activities; 4. The disfigurement caused by the injuries; 5. The aggravation caused to any preexisting condition. B. Economic damages 1. The reasonable value of necessary medical care received and expenses incurred as a result of the injury and the present cash value of medical care and expenses reasonably certain and necessary to be required in the future; 2. The reasonable value of past lost earnings lost as a result of the injury; 3. The present cash value of the future earning capacity lost because of the injury, taking into consideration the earning power, age, health, life expectancy, mental and physical abilities, habits, and disposition of the plaintiff, and any other circumstances shown by the evidence. 4. The reasonable value of necessary services provided by another in doing things for the plaintiff, which, except for the injury, the plaintiff would ordinarily have performed; and 5. Any other specific item based upon the evidence.
Economic losses are pretty straight-forward. For example, the easiest of these is past medical expenses actually and reasonably incurred because of the injury. There is no dollar limit on these costs.
Another, somewhat more difficult component of economic loss is “future medical expenses” likely to be incurred because of the injury. It is plaintiff’s burden to prove the existence of such expenses. Because insurance companies hire biased physicians to perform hired medical examinations, proving these damages-even when your own doctor believes they will be coming, can be difficult.
Another component of economic loss is lost income. When a person works for X dollars and hour X hours a day and has missed X days work such loses are easy to prove. But if a person is a business owner who missed a meeting that may have helped create a relationship that could have led to business a loss is certainly difficult to prove. In fact, anyone who does something more than work by the hour and can show the hours of work lost, like a commission salesperson or even a painter or other contractor, the proof gets harder.
Providing enough proof to take such damages outside the “realm of speculation” is sufficient for a plaintiff to recover if a jury is persuaded the claimed loss is an actual loss.
On the non-economic side, however, no matter what a jury decides, an injured person’s claim is arbitrarily limited because of the legislature’s actions. These damages are not readily or easily quantifiable, but they are real losses for an injured person.
Arbitrarily rejecting the jury’s evaluation of the losses is an illogical act and by application of any straight forward logic should be considered unconstitutional. For example, we trust juries to decide whether a convicted criminal should be put to death for their actions. That is a far greater power than one to award money damages.
It is also important to recognize that a trial judge always has a chance to evaluate a jury award to rein in any actual “run-away jury” award. But, even though they can never know the details of the case in which they have pre-judged the losses, the legislature imposed its arbitrary limitations on Idaho citizens.
Other state legislatures have done similar things, however, many state supreme courts have rejected such indiscriminate caps as unconstitutional. Idaho’s court unfortunately did not find that to be true.
Such caps are most damaging to non-working people such as homemakers or children because they do not have a good lost wages claim. The caps also cause practical problems in getting cases settled. Insurance companies reason that instead of paying 100% of the amount of their potential exposure after a trial, because a jury might award substantially less they are better off just going to trial. It is just a reality of their negotiating tactics .
There are two small things that make Idaho’s version of damages caps not as evil as some versions. First, the 1987 legislature included an adjustment to the cap based on the increase in the average annual wage change as calculated in the workers compensation world. The specific calculation is available online. And, if a plaintiff can show the person who caused the injury was acting recklessly or intentionally as opposed to being merely negligent then the damage cap does not apply.