In late 2015 the Nevada Supreme Court struck down a law that removed caps from non-economic damages in medical malpractice suits. The ruling was a huge blow to every wrongful death lawyer in Las Vegas who used non-economic and punitive damages as tools to secure the compensation their clients deserved.
Nevada has a long history of reforming compensation guidelines in medical malpractice and wrongful death lawsuits. Supporters of reform argue that when the compensation is potentially unlimited, doctors and hospitals face increased exposure to lawsuits, and devastating penalties. The mere threat is enough to keep medical professionals out of the state. Opponents point out that without the threat of substantial financial penalties in personal injury or medical malpractice cases, offenders are less likely to change bad behavior, which exposes the public to more harm.
It is clear that the public demands a higher level of accountability for doctors, as seen by the numerous attempts to remove the caps. The courts continue to challenge the legislation, ruling each law unconstitutional, and giving every wrongful death lawyer in Las Vegas a small set of tools to combat malpractice.
Right now, wrongful death lawyer in Las Vegas has three avenues to pursue damages against a doctor or hospital.
Economic damages are the easiest to understand, and where a wrongful death lawyer in Las Vegas has the least room for negotiation. The State clearly defines economic damages as any damages related to direct medical treatment, in- and out-patient care services, earnings lost from the damages, and the loss of future earnings directly related to the case.
A wrongful death lawyer in Las Vegas will have to make a case for the decedent’s potential earnings when determining economic damages. The court will look at the age, health and earning capacity for the decedent, then make predictions on how much that person would have earned if they lived to their maximum life expectancy.
Injured parties have no limit on economic damages they may receive, but strict rules regarding wage calculations and potential future earnings place some restrictions on what a lawyer can seek in a wrongful death case arising from malpractice. Defendants will use a decedent’s lifestyle, prior medical history, and other very personal factors, as conditions that limit the years included in the future earnings.
With a cap of $350,000, non-economic damages are a point of contention for a wrongful death lawyer in Las Vegas. Non-economic damages are meant as compensation for the injured party’s pain and suffering, disfigurement, loss of companionship, or any other non-quantifiable damages the defendant caused. In wrongful death cases in other states, non-economic damages can be huge, which drove the change in Nevada’s law.
Reformers pushed for the limits for a variety of reasons. Different juries awarded radically different amounts from case to case, so it was impossible for doctors or insurance companies to prepare for a judgment in advance. The uncertainty caused insurance companies to hike medical malpractice insurance rates, increasing the total cost of medical treatment. The reformers also noted that non-economic damages were often motivated by the emotions of the jury, and not based on facts in evidence.
There continues to be pushback against the limits. Opponents introduced several bills in the 2010s that have been overturned by the courts so far, but as public opinion continues to turn against doctors and the medical insurance industry, legislation removing the caps may stick.
Punitive or punishment damages are rare for wrongful death cases in Nevada, but they are available in extreme cases. Punitive damages are capped at the greater of three times the economic and non-economic damages or $300,000. To go after punitive damages, a wrongful death lawyer in Las Vegas must prove the doctor acted with specific malice, and caused the death through willing negligence. Both qualifications are exceptionally difficult to meet in a wrongful death lawsuit, leaving very few cases to reward punitive damages.
Severe restrictions on punitive damages exposes patients to doctors who commit malpractice multiple times. Without highly punishing damages to act as a deterrent, doctors and hospitals have no incentive to make changes or provide better care for patients. Punitive damages also attack as a deterrent for the entire medical community, and by making an example out of one doctor, other physicians and hospitals are forced to be more proactive in protecting against malpractice.
In an effort to create a state that is more friendly to business and medical professionals, Nevada courts and lawmakers established a malpractice system that favors doctors over patients. To address the issue, the state will need to evaluate the caps further, either eliminating them or giving the courts more flexibility to raise the caps in cases of gross negligence.