The law holds most people accountable for exercising a reasonable amount of care for others as they go about their lives. When someone fails to exercise the proper degree of care and another person is injured as a result, the law gives the injured party the right to collect financial compensation from the responsible party. Pennsylvania law specifies the types of losses or damages for personal injuries that can be compensated and limits the recovery amounts in cases involving certain wrongdoers. When the circumstances indicate an outrageous deviation from the appropriate standard of care, damages may include amounts awarded solely to penalize the wrongdoer.
Personal Injury Losses that can be Compensated
There are two categories of damage an injured person may have experienced that they may be entitled to compensation for. Economic damage is the additional financial expense that must be incurred because of an accident or injury. Non-economic damage is an assessment of the negative impact an accident or injury has on a person’s life.
- Economic damages – can include medical expenses, lost earnings, property damage, and other out-of-pocket expenses.
- Non-economic damages – can include compensation for physical pain, mental suffering, and diminished quality of life.
While calculating economic damages tends to be fairly straightforward, determining non-economic damages is an inexact science based on similar past situations and the individual experience of the person injured.
When Punitive Damages can be Awarded
The purpose of punitive damages is to punish a wrongdoer and discourage them (and others) from similar wrongdoing. But the effect is to provide additional compensation to the person wronged. In Pennsylvania, punitive damages can be awarded when a person’s conduct demonstrates an evil motive or reckless indifference to the potential for injury to others.
Punitive damages are appropriate when a wrongdoer both:
- Knew of the potential danger others were being exposed to
- Made a conscious choice to continue to put others at risk
Punitive damages are an add-on and can only be considered if compensatory damages have been awarded.
Cap on Punitive Damages in Medical Malpractice Cases
For most types of personal injury cases, there is no upper limit on the amount of punitive damages that may be awarded. However, for injury claims based on medical malpractice, any imposed award of punitive damages is generally limited to an amount no greater than 200 percent of the compensatory damages.
In addition, the law requires that 25 percent of the punitive damages awarded in a medical malpractice case be paid to the state’s Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error (MCARE) Fund (40 Pa. Stat. § 1303.505).
How Non-Economic Damage Amounts are Determined
Economic damages are based on known or calculable amounts. Non-economic damages are determined by considering four types of non-economic damage as well as some specific individual characteristics of the person seeking damages.
In claims for non-economic damages, Pennsylvania jury instructions direct jurors to consider the impact of the following four types of non-economic loss:
- Pain and suffering
- Embarrassment and humiliation
- Loss of the ability to enjoy the pleasures of life
Factors that are to be considered when determining the amount of compensation for each type of non-economic damage are:
- Age of the person injured
- Severity of the injury
- Whether injuries are temporary or permanent
- How injuries affect daily living activities
- Physical pain and mental anguish experienced or to be experienced
- Health and physical condition prior to injury
- Nature of disfigurement and the impact it may have
Damages Limited in Claims against the Commonwealth
Sovereign immunity means a government is not liable for its wrongdoing. The federal and many state governments have waived absolute immunity for personal injury claims in certain situations but still limit their liability to specific dollar amounts.
In Pennsylvania, the Commonwealth and its agencies have limited their liability in personal injury cases to $250,000 per claimant for all damages and $1,000,000 per injury-causing accident or event. The municipalities and local governments can be liable for up to $500,000 per claimant.
No Sovereign Immunity in Sexual Abuse Cases
The most recent exception to sovereign immunity became law in 2019 in an attempt to provide relief for young victims of sexual abuse in institutional settings – such as schools. For claims made under the new immunity exception, the cap on damages has been completely eliminated.
How Comparative Negligence Affects Personal Injury Damage Awards
Having any fault for causing the accident that resulted in claimed injuries can be a bar to recovery in some states. Pennsylvania allows an injured party to collect damages as long as their amount of fault is not greater than the combined fault of those from whom recovery is sought.
A claimant may be up to 50 percent responsible for an accident and still collect compensation. However, their compensation will be reduced by a percentage equal to the amount of liability they are found to have had.
Proving Your Damages in a Personal Injury Case
Despite being entitled to receive compensation for damages, there still needs to be evidence that supports economic damage claims and justifies non-economic damage claims. Medical expenses are not automatically compensated. Medical treatment received for claimed injuries must be both reasonable and necessary. Opinions from medical experts may be required to establish the appropriateness of medical expenses incurred.
The non-economic damages for personal injuries are not obvious and need to be explained and corroborated. Witnesses can provide information about activities and characteristics before and after an injury to assist in establishing the non-economic impact on a person’s life. Keeping a written account of how an injury is affecting your daily living can also provide useful information for determining an appropriate amount of compensation.
Factors that can Influence the Available Damages in Personal Injury Cases
The damages available to compensate someone wrongfully injured in Pennsylvania may be limited by law, contract, the conduct of an injured party, or the quality of proof offered in support of a damages claimed. Understanding how the laws apply and what evidence is necessary to support the damages claimed will help ensure an injured person gets fully compensated for their losses. If you were injured due to the negligence of another, contact Pittsburgh injury lawyers at SMT Legal for a free consultation.