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Georgia Supreme Court Asked to Determine Validity of State’s Statutory Cap on Wrongful Death Compensation

According to a report from Law360, an appellate court in our state has asked the Georgia Supreme Court to weigh in on the constitutional validity of the state’s statutory cap on wrongful death compensation. The matter relates to $7.2 million in non-economic damages that were awarded by a jury as part of a medical malpractice claim arising in Macon. At Stewart Miller Simmons Trial Attorneys, we have extensive experience fighting for justice for grieving families in wrongful death cases. Within this article, our Atlanta wrongful death lawyers provide an overview of the issues before Georgia’s highest court. 

Background: Understanding the Statutory Caps for Damages in Georgia

There are statutory caps on certain types of claims in Georgia. While there is no overriding cap that applies to wrongful death damages (or personal injury damages), there are caps that may apply to certain types of claims. Here is a detailed overview of the key points to understand: 

  • $350,000 Cap on Non-Economic Damages for Medical Malpractice Claim (Single Provider): Non-economic damages refer to compensation for intangible losses such as pain and suffering, emotional distress, and loss of enjoyment of life. In Georgia, the law limits the amount a plaintiff can recover for non-economic damages from a single healthcare provider or entity in a medical malpractice case to $350,000. Notably, this applies to wrongful death claims that are brought based on an allegation of medical malpractice. 
  • $700,000 Cap on Non-Economic Damages for Medical Malpractice Claim (Multiple Providers): Medical malpractice cases are complicated. It is not uncommon for there to be two separate defendants. When a medical malpractice claim involves multiple providers, the statutory cap for non-economic damages increases to $700,000. The higher limit acknowledges the potential for increased complexity and severity of harm when more than one provider contributes to the malpractice. Once again, this cap on non-economic damages can apply to a wrongful death claim for medical malpractice brought against two providers. 
  • $250,000 Cap on Punitive Damages for Wrongful Death (Except for Intentional Harm and Intoxication: Georgia also caps punitive damages in certain wrongful death cases. Punitive damages are awarded not to compensate the victim, but to punish the defendant for particularly egregious behavior and to deter similar conduct in the future. In Georgia, punitive damages in wrongful death cases are capped at $250,000 for most claims. However, there are two major exceptions within state law. No cap on punitive damages applies if the defendant caused a wrongful death through its “intentional” act. Further, no punitive damages cap applies if the wrongful death occurs due to intoxication. In other words, punitive damages are not capped in fatal DUI accident wrongful death claims. 

Note: Other than medical malpractice claims, there are no caps for non-economic damages in Georgia. For example, a person who suffered a serious injury in a semi-truck accident has the right to seek compensation for the full extent of their non-economic losses. State law does not put a limit on the amount that these types of victims can pursue for their pain and suffering. 

Statutory Caps Take the Power Out of the Hands of the Judge and Jury

Statutory caps on damages are extremely controversial. How they apply varies widely across jurisdictions—and not all states have them. As you may already recognize, these caps are favorable to defendants and insurance companies, not victims and families. Indeed, the imposition of statutory caps on damages inherently shifts the power dynamics within the courtroom. It effectively takes decision-making authority away from judges and juries—at least in regards to determining how much financial compensation can be awarded for a specific matter. Unfortunately, this can—and sometimes does—lead to situations where the compensation that is limited by the cap does not fully account for the plaintiff’s actual losses.

Appeal Challenges Validity of Cap on Non-Economic Damages for Medical Malpractice

The recent wrongful death claim arising out of the Macon, GA area seeks to challenge Georgia’s statutory cap on non-economic damages for medical malpractice claims. As stated at the outset of the article, the jury in that case awarded the family of the victim $7.2 million in non-economic damages. That amount would have to be reduced based on the statutory cap for non-economic damages in a medical malpractice claim in Georgia. At the heart of the appeal is a fundamental question regarding the balance between limiting liability for healthcare providers and ensuring fair compensation for victims of medical negligence. Critics of the cap reasonably argue that the law unjustly restricts the compensation available to those who have suffered. 

Georgia Supreme Court Must Decide if Cap is Constitutional 

The Georgia Supreme Court is now positioned to determine the future of the state’s statutory cap for non-economic damages in medical malpractice claims, including wrongful death cases. Here is the central argument raised by the plaintiffs—and the advocates for victims’ rights more broadly: A legal cap on non-economic damages infringes upon the Seventh Amendment’s guarantee of a trial by jury. In other words, the cap that imposes a predetermined limit on the amount of damages a jury can award diminishes its role in assessing the full extent of a plaintiff’s non-economic losses—including pain and suffering and loss of love, companionship, and consortium. For reference, there have been movements to strike down statutory caps on damages in several other states in recent years—and some of them have been successful. Most recently, in 2022, the Ohio Supreme Court struck down the state’s cap on non-economic damages for personal injury cases. 

Contact Our Atlanta Wrongful Death Lawyers for Your Free Consultation 

At Stewart Miller Simmons Trial Attorneys, our Atlanta wrongful death lawyers are skilled, experienced, and compassionate advocates for grieving families. As an award-winning law firm, we have what it takes to fight for justice. Call us at (404) 529-3476 or contact us online to set up a free, confidential initial case review. With a law office in Atlanta, we represent grieving families in wrongful death cases in Fulton County, DeKalb County, Cobb County, and throughout the region.

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