When a defendant is found liable in a negligence or personal injury action, many plaintiffs presume that damages will be awarded to them. But damages are a separate element of any personal injury claim that must be independently proven by the plaintiff. When the plaintiff fails to do so, a jury can decline to award the plaintiff any damages at all. Just such a circumstance arose in a recent case, and the unsuccessful efforts of the plaintiff to reverse the jury’s verdict on appeal show the reluctance of courts to disturb a zero damages verdict.
Courts have the power to award two different types of damages in West Virginia personal injury cases: compensatory damages and punitive damages. Compensatory damages are intended to make the injured person “whole” by compensating the person for related medical costs, missed wages resulting from time away from work, pain and suffering, and emotional distress. Punitive damages are designed to punish a person or entity being sued for particularly callous behavior.
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia recently explained in a medical malpractice case some of the requirements that a person must meet in order to assert a claim for punitive damages. Although the standard was recently changed, the case gives a good example of what courts look at when considering punitive damages claims.
Mother and Father sued an emergency room doctor and his hospital employer in March 2015, alleging that the doctor’s negligence contributed to their baby son’s death. Among other claims, the parents said the doctor failed to take into account when treating the baby that he showed signs of hemophilia – a rare blood disorder – and to take adequate steps to address the condition. They argued that both the doctor and the hospital failed to live up to the “duty of care” required of a physician and a hospital under the circumstances and that the hospital fraudulently misrepresented the quality of services provided in advertisements touting the expertise of their doctors. The parents asked the Court to award them both compensatory and punitive damages.
A person who is injured in an accident or other incident in West Virginia has a legal right to seek damages and other remedies from those responsible for the injuries. That includes money for doctor’s bills and other medical costs. But what if the injured person doesn’t actually have to pay for the medical services that he or she receives? A federal district court in the state recently took on that question.
A.N. was a minor when he suffered severe burns in an accident that the court didn’t describe. His parents later sued fire log company Hearthmark LLC for the injuries, claiming that the company had caused the accident to happen and was therefore liable. During the litigation that followed, the company sought to introduce evidence showing that the treatment A.N. received for his injuries at Shriners Hospital for Children in Cincinnati was provided free of charge. The Hospital generally provides services at no cost to patients, regardless of a patient’s ability to pay, the Court explained. It had recently begun accepting some insurance payments from patients who were covered by a health insurance plan.
A.N.’s parents countered with a motion in limine, asking the Court to block Hearthmark from admitting the evidence. They argued that the amount that they paid for A.N.’s current and future medical treatment wasn’t relevant to the case and was likely to cause A.N. undue prejudice as the litigation proceeded.