Tort reform refers to legislative changes (both laws that are proposed and laws that are passed) that would change the way personal injury cases work. "Tort" is just another legalese term for personal injury.
In a typical personal injury claim, such as one stemming from medical malpractice, a plaintiff can receive damages that are intended to compensate for:
treatment costs (economic damages)
2. Lost income/earnings (economic damages)
3. Pain and suffering (non-economic damages)
4. Emotional distress (non-economic damages)
5. Punitive damages (meant to punish a defendant for egregious or outrageous conduct)
Tort reform efforts usually try to limit non-economic damages, punitive damages or both.
Those who argue in favor of tort reform assert that caps on damages are essential for protecting many facets of society from the crushing costs of unreasonable jury verdicts. In medical malpractice cases, for example, tort reform is seen as one way of helping to keep down the skyrocketing costs of medical care.
In injury cases in general, there is a belief that juries may be overly sympathetic to injured victims, and will award damages that are out-of-bounds with what is appropriate. The risk of high, uncapped damage awards results in insurance being quite expensive. Returning to the medical malpractice example, doctors, hospitals and health care providers have to pay more money for malpractice insurance, so as a result, medical care costs more because this cost has to be borne by consumers. It is also argued that doctors sometimes make decisions based on the fear of a lawsuit, rather than solely on what they believe is best.
Equally compelling are the arguments against tort reforms. Counterarguments assert that it is not fair to cap damages and prevent plaintiffs from getting full compensation for losses that were caused by someone else's negligence. Some argue that tort reform efforts are unconstitutional, and in fact some state constitutions do have prohibitions against these types of caps (Arkansas, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania are a few).
Finally, in the context of medical malpractice lawsuits, it has been asserted in some states -- like California -- that plaintiffs are having a hard time finding lawyers to take malpractice cases. California has a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases, and attorneys are typically paid a percentage of damages as their only fee in these cases. Since malpractice is expensive to prove, this cap on damages acts as a potentially significant hindrance to lawyers taking on malpractice cases. When plaintiffs can't find lawyers, doctors don't get sued and there is even less accountability or incentive to refrain from negligence. So the argument goes.
While there are plenty of arguments on both sides, the fact is many states have instituted caps when it comes to damages in medical malpractice lawsuits. A table of the rules regarding damage caps is below but it is important to note two things: 1) most of these caps adjust annually for inflation so the ceiling may be different at the time of your reading and 2) laws in this area are evolving. The table, then, should be considered a guide but should not be used as your definitive answer on whether malpractice damages are capped in your state:
|Alaska||Non-economic: $250,000. Wrongful death or a disability considered more than 70% disabling: $400,000|
|Colorado||Non-economic: $300,000. Total damages: $1 million|
|District of Columbia||None|
|Florida||Non-Economic Damages: $500,000 for practitioners; $750,000 for non-practitioners; $1-million for permanent vegetative state or death|
|Georgia||Punitive: $250,000. Non-economic: $350,000 against providers. Additional $350,000 against each health care facility. Total maximum for non-economic: $1,050,000|
|Hawaii||Non-economic: $375,000 with exceptions for specific situations|
|Idaho||Non-economic $250,000, adjusted annually for inflation. Does not apply to willful/reckless negligence or felonies.|
|Illinois||Non-economic: $500,000 against providers. $1,000,000 against hospitals|
|Indiana||$1,250,000 total if it occurred after 1999. Providers liable for a maximum of $250,000 with the rest to be paid through state's Patient Compensation Fund.|
|Louisiana||$500,000 total. Health care providers liable for only $100,000 with the rest paid by compensation fund|
|Maine||Non-economic: $500,000 on wrongful death|
|Maryland||Non-economic: $710,000 as of 2013 to increase $15,000 annually. Applies to all claims and to all defendants from the same injury, or to wrongful death cases with only one plaintiff. If two wrongful death plaintiffs- $125% of current non-economic cap.|
|Massachusetts||Non-economic damages: $500,000 except in catastrophic injuries|
|Michigan||Non-economic: As of 2010 $408,200 or $729,000 for catastrophic/disabling injuries. Adjusts annually for inflation|
|Missouri||Non-economic: $350,000; but cap ruled unconstitutional by Missouri Supreme Court in 2012|
|Nebraska||$1,750,000 total except maximum of $500,000 for those qualifying entities under the Hospital-Medical Liability Act|
|Nevada||Non-economic: $350,000 except with limited exceptions|
|New Jersey||Punitive: The greater of $350,000 or 5x compensatory damages.|
|New Mexico||Total: $600,000 except for past/future medical bills and punitive damages. Maximum provider liability is $200,000 with the rest paid by compensation fund.|
|North Dakota||Non-economic: $500,000 however any award above $250,000 may be reviewed by judge|
|Ohio||Non-economic damages: $250,000 or 3x economic damages up to $350,000/plaintiff, whichever is greater. $500,000 total for multiple plaintiffs. In catastrophic cases, $500,000 or $1,000,000|
|Oklahoma||Non-economic $300,000 for OB/ER cases or if there's an offer of judgment|
|Oregon||Non-economic: $500,000 for wrongful death. Other non-economic caps not constitutional|
|Pennsylvania||Punitive: Twice actual damages. Constitutional prohibition on caps of economic damages|
|South Carolina||Punitive damages: $350,000 or 3x compensatory damages. Non-economic: $350,000 or facility against each provider adjusted annually for inflation. Total claim with multiple providers capped at $1,050,000|
|South Dakota||Non-economic $500,000|
|Texas||Non-economic damages: $250,000 physicians or providers. Additional $250,000 against each health care institution|
|Utah||Non-economic $250,000 against physicians/ providers. $250,000 additional from each health care institution.|
|Virginia||Total damages $2,000,000 for acts occurring after July 2008.|
|West Virginia||Non-economic $250,000, adjusted for inflation annually with an absolute maximum of $375,000. In catastrophic cases, $500,000 adjusted annually up to a max of $750,000|
|Wisconsin||Non-economic $750,000 for medical negligence. Wrongful death actions: $500,000 for minors and $350,000 for adults|