Damage Caps on Medical Malpractice Lawsuits in North Carolina

January 15, 2023 | - News & Insights

Medical malpractice lawsuits are one of the most significant legal risks faced by doctors, nurses, and other healthcare providers in the course of their profession. While medical malpractice insurance can shield healthcare providers from some of that liability, medical malpractice insurance is expensive, and medical malpractice lawsuits only drive up the price of that insurance. Higher insurance prices can, in turn, increase the cost of healthcare for patients. To limit the potential impact of astronomical damages awards in medical malpractice cases, North Carolina law places a cap on certain types of damages available in such cases. A North Carolina medical malpractice attorney can help you mount a strong defense if you are a healthcare provider facing a medical malpractice suit.  

Medical Malpractice Lawsuits Generally 

Medical malpractice lawsuits arise where the plaintiff believes he or she has suffered a personal injury due to a healthcare provider's negligence. Some common bases for medical malpractice suits include misdiagnoses, delayed diagnoses, prescription errors, birth injuries, improper treatment, and bedsores, among others. To prevail on a medical malpractice claim, the plaintiff must prove the following elements: 

  1. The defendant healthcare provider owed the plaintiff a duty (or standard) of care
  2. The defendant failed to meet that standard of care
  3. The defendant’s breach of the standard of care caused the plaintiff’s injury
  4. The plaintiff suffered damages as a result of the breach 

The standard of care healthcare providers owe to their patients is not necessarily the best possible or best available care. Instead, it is the level and type of care that is typical among other members of the healthcare profession with similar training and who are situated in the same or similar circumstances as those that gave rise to the lawsuit. In other words, the law asks whether a reasonably competent healthcare provider would have provided the same treatment under the same or similar circumstances. If the answer is “yes,” there is no breach of the standard of care. 

Types of Damages Available in Medical Malpractice Cases

Plaintiffs in medical malpractice suits generally seek a variety of damages. Depending on the harm alleged (up to and including wrongful death, in some cases), these damages can be substantial. The most common types of damages plaintiffs typically seek in medical malpractice cases are economic damages (also known as special damages) and non-economic damages (also known as general damages). 

Economic damages are those that can reasonably be calculated in monetary terms. They include: 

  • Medical bills
  • Future medical bills 
  • Rehabilitation
  • Lost income
  • Lost earning capacity 
  • Costs attributable to the medical malpractice (such as hiring an in-home care aide) 

Non-economic damages cannot be valued as easily in monetary terms. These include: 

  • Pain and suffering
  • Disfigurement 
  • Mental anguish 
  • Loss of use of a body part
  • Loss of enjoyment of life
  • Worsening of prior injuries 

In some cases, medical malpractice plaintiffs may also seek punitive damages. These are damages that are awarded not to compensate the victim but to punish the defendant for conduct that was especially egregious, such as conduct involving fraud, malice, and/or willful or wanton acts. These cases are some of the most serious and potentially high-profile against healthcare professionals. Therefore, if you are facing allegations of fraud, malice, and/or willful or wanton conduct, you should consider speaking to a North Carolina medical malpractice attorney.  

North Carolina’s Medical Malpractice Damages Cap

In 2011, the North Carolina legislature enacted a tort reform measure that limited the availability of certain types of damages in medical malpractice litigation. The law, found at North Carolina General Statutes § 90-21.19, limits the amount of noneconomic damages a plaintiff may receive in a medical malpractice action to $500,000, which is adjusted for inflation every three years. As of the date of publication, the cap is $562,338. The statute defines noneconomic damages as damages to compensate for “pain, suffering, emotional distress, loss of consortium, inconvenience, and any other non-pecuniary compensatory damage.” 

While § 90-21.19 limits the amount of damages a plaintiff must receive, it does not prohibit a jury from awarding damages in excess of the cap. In fact, the statute actually prohibits judges and attorneys from informing jurors of the limit. It should also be noted that the damages cap is limited to non-economic damages. Economic damages (such as medical bills, lost income, rehabilitation, etc.) are unaffected. Even with a cap on noneconomic damages, economic damages can still climb to astronomical amounts, which is why you should speak to a North Carolina medical malpractice attorney if you are facing a medical malpractice suit. 

Exceptions to North Carolina’s Medical Malpractice Damages Cap

As with almost all legal and regulatory schemes, there are exceptions to North Carolina’s medical malpractice damages cap. Subsection (b) of § 90-21.19 states: 

…[T]here shall be no limit on the amount of noneconomic damages for which judgment may be entered against a defendant if the trier of fact finds both of the following:

  1. The plaintiff suffered disfigurement, loss of use of part of the body, permanent injury or death.
  2. The defendant's acts or failures, which are the proximate cause of the plaintiff's injuries, were committed in reckless disregard of the rights of others, grossly negligent, fraudulent, intentional or with malice.

In other words, the non-economic damages cap generally applies only where the defendant’s conduct was negligent. It does not apply where the plaintiff suffered disfigurement, loss of use of a body part, or death, and the defendant’s conduct rose to the level of gross negligence or worse. § 90-21.19 also specially exempts punitive damages from its definition of “noneconomic damages,” which means that punitive damages are not subject to the damages cap. However, a different section of the North Carolina statutes — § 1D-25 — nonetheless limits the amount of punitive damages a plaintiff may recover to no more than three times the amount of the compensatory damages or $250,000, whichever is greater. 

Fight a Medical Malpractice Suit with Help from a North Carolina Medical Malpractice Attorney 

North Carolina’s medical malpractice damages cap may minimize some of the harm from medical malpractice suits, but it does not limit economic damages nor the reputational harm caused by damages being awarded in medical malpractice suits. For vigorous and effective medical malpractice defense, please contact a North Carolina medical malpractice attorney at Harris, Creech, Ward & Blackerby by calling 252-638-6666 or using our online contact form.

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Harris, Creech, Ward & Blackerby, P.A.

325 Pollock Street, PO Drawer 1168,
New Bern, NC 28563

Tel: 252-638-6666
Fax: 252-638-3542

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