Understanding Non-Economic Damages in North Carolina

March 29, 2024 | - News & Insights

The plaintiff’s goal in any personal injury lawsuit is to obtain monetary damages from the defendant. While some types of damages are fairly straightforward (e.g., medical expenses) others — like pain and suffering — are far from it. Because these types of non-economic damages can be difficult to value, they often cause damages awards to balloon to unreasonable amounts and, in many cases, exceed the amount of economic damages. If your company is facing the prospect of a large damages award in litigation (regardless of the type of damages involved), a North Carolina personal injury defense attorney can help you protect your interests. 

Types of Non-Economic Damages 

There are many types of damages available in personal injury cases. The two primary categories of compensatory damages are economic damages and non-economic damages. Economic damages generally include the types of damages that are easily calculable, such as medical bills, lost earnings, property damage, travel expenses, and out-of-pocket expenses. 

Non-economic damages are intangible damages that make it more difficult to calculate the dollar value. They often include:  

  • Pain and suffering
  • Loss of consortium
  • Loss of enjoyment of life
  • Mental anguish 
  • Scarring and disfigurement  

While both economic and non-economic damages are intended to compensate plaintiffs (which is why they are referred to as “compensatory damages”), courts, in some cases, may also award punitive damages, which are designed to punish defendants for particularly egregious conduct. 

How Plaintiffs Prove Non-Economic Damages 

How does one prove the existence of a non-economic damage as theoretical as “mental anguish”? It is a difficult task to be sure, and one that the plaintiffs’ bar often struggles to accomplish with certainty. Because there is no magic formula to prove whether and how much a plaintiff has suffered non-economic damages, plaintiffs typically rely on their own word and the word of friends, family members, and colleagues to establish the requisite injury. Plaintiffs who suffer a physical injury generally have an easier time proving non-economic damages (particularly pain and suffering), as judges and juries can typically infer the degree of the plaintiff’s pain from the severity of their injury. Plaintiffs who claim damages for purely emotional injuries, such as in cases involving intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress, generally have a more difficult time and may rely more heavily on expert witnesses. A North Carolina personal injury defense attorney can discuss rebutting claims of non-economic damages with you in more detail. 

How Non-Economic Damages Are Calculated

Just as there is no one-size-fits-all method of proving non-economic damages, there is similarly no set formula for calculating them. When considering the extent to which a personal injury has affected the plaintiff’s life, juries may consider several different factors, including: 

  • The plaintiff’s credibility 
  • The severity of the plaintiff’s injuries 
  • Whether the plaintiff was contributorily negligent 
  • The egregiousness of the defendant’s conduct
  • The strength of the plaintiff’s case against the defendant 
  • The recovery timeframe for the plaintiff’s injuries
  • The plaintiff’s prognosis 
  • The treatments the plaintiff has undergone and will undergo 
  • Whether the plaintiff’s injuries will cause permanent disability 
  • The testimony of medical expert witnesses 

Readers should note that the above factors are also relevant when negotiating settlements. To find out how any of these factors (or others) may affect your case, please speak to a North Carolina personal injury defense attorney

Limits on Non-Economic Damages in North Carolina 

Non-economic damages and punitive damages awards often dwarf economic damages awards. As a result, many states have implemented tort reform efforts to bring such damages awards back down to a more reasonable amount. North Carolina limits damages in two scenarios: 

Non-Economic Damages in Medical Malpractice Cases

Under Section 90-21.19 of the North Carolina General Statutes, in any medical malpractice case in which the plaintiff is entitled to an award of non-economic damages, the total amount of non-economic damages may not exceed $500,000. However, there is an exception. There is no limit on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases where (1) the plaintiff suffered disfigurement, loss of use of part of the body, permanent injury, or death, AND (2) the defendant’s actions were committed in reckless disregard of the rights of others, grossly negligent, fraudulent, intentional, or malicious. 

Punitive Damages

Under Section 1D-25, punitive damages may not exceed three times the amount of compensatory damages or $250,000, whichever is greater. While North Carolina juries are allowed to award more, the court will reduce them to the maximum amount in such cases. This cap does not apply to injuries arising from drunk driving accidents or to injuries arising from the defendant’s injury to an energy facility under Section 14-150.2

Reduce Your Liability for Non-Economic Damages With Help From a North Carolina Personal Injury Defense Attorney

Non-economic damages awards can be expensive. The best way to reduce your liability for them is with the assistance of attorneys who are experienced in rebutting plaintiffs’ claims of pain and suffering and negotiating with plaintiffs’ attorneys. For more information, please contact a North Carolina personal injury defense 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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