In the American judicial system, losses stemming from personal injury or wrongful death (called "damages" in legalese) are measured in financial terms. At the conclusion of a civil trial, the jury is instructed on the appropriate process for figuring out the proper amount of damages to compensate the injured party for his or her losses.
Typically, there is no limit on the amount of damages a jury can award, and its verdict will be upheld as long as it is supported by the evidence. However, there are certain cases and certain circumstances in which limits are placed on damage awards in personal injury lawsuits. We'll discuss the most common of these situations in this article.
Statutory Damage Caps
In some states, the legislature has enacted laws that place "caps", or limits, on the amount of damages a litigant can recover in certain types of cases.
For example, the Michigan legislature has capped damages in medical malpractice and product liability cases in amounts that can be significantly less than the damages proved at trial. These cap amounts fluctuate from year to year based on inflation rates, and are currently just under $500,000.00 (somewhat higher for certain permanent conditions).
The result of these damage caps is that a medical malpractice or product liability plaintiff in Michigan who proves damages in the millions of dollars will be grossly undercompensated for his or her injuries.
While the caps were enacted for policy reasons largely geared toward making Michigan a more attractive state for the medical profession and product manufacturers, they also impose a cost on litigants who are prevented from receiving full compensation for their injuries.
The "Runaway Jury" Phenomenon
As noted above, juries are instructed (by the judge, before deliberations) on how to determine an amount of damages that appropriately compensates the injured party fully and fairly for his or her losses. Juries are also cautioned not to let passion or prejudice affect their decision.
The guiding principle to be followed by a jury is that the amount of damages awarded must be supported by the evidence presented. Sometimes, however, juries reach damage awards that are so far beyond the scope of the evidence that the judge will have no choice but to reduce the verdict amount to a sum that is reflective of the proofs submitted during the trial.
In other words, juries are not given a blank check to render verdicts in any amount they choose, and courts will step in to limit damage awards when necessary.
When an injured party is found to have engaged in conduct that contributed to the cause of the accident, he or she is said to be either contributorily or comparatively negligent.
In states where contributory negligence is the standard, the injured party's own conduct is a defense to the claim that can bar a damage award altogether.
In states that have adopted a comparative negligence standard, the injured party's own conduct will typically reduce or limit the damage award by a percentage equal to his or her share of fault. For example, if the injured party's damages total $100,000 and fault is determined to be 30 percent, the damage award will be reduced accordingly, to $70,000.
Some states have what is known as a "pure comparative negligence" standard that allows an injured party to recover limited damages even when he or she is determined to be more than fifty percent at fault; in states having a "modified comparative negligence" standard, injured parties determined to be more than 50 percent at fault are totally barred from recovering any damages.
Learn more about Damages in a Personal Injury Case.