In 2008, Zeng Guang Lin, a 26-year-old Chinese immigrant, fell 20 feet from the roof of a building. Employed by Hutch Realty Partners, a property management company based in the Bronx, Lin suffered severe head trauma. The accident left him with debilitating brain injuries. Hutch had not provided him with a safety harness, in clear violation of both Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) regulations and New York’s own “Scaffold” labor law.
On Wednesday, December 17, 2014, a jury in Queens awarded Lin a total of $62 million for his damages. It’s a staggering amount to any imagination, and according to the New York Post a record: “the largest lawsuit verdict for a single plaintiff in Queens” history.
Pain & Suffering Damages: What & Why
But the most surprising fact in the case may be what the jury awarded Lin for. Those millions were not meant to compensate Lin for medical expenses, lost wages or any of the other common, “economic” losses associated with a personal injury lawsuit.
Instead, the court saw fit to award Lin $20 million for past pain and suffering, and $42 million for any pain and suffering incurred in the future. A relatively paltry $60,086.27 was awarded for Lin’s past medical costs.
So what is pain and suffering? How is it calculated? And are these damages always extended to accident victims?
Economic vs. Non-Economic Damages
Most personal injury victims seek “economic” damages in a lawsuit. Medical expenses, lost wages, and lost earning potential; these amounts can be easily calculated. Add up all your medical bills and ask the court to award you that much. Take the amount of time you were unable to work, multiply it by a portion of your wage, and ask for that. Predict how long you’ll be out of work, factor in how much you make, and ask for that. If your car was damaged in an accident, ask for the amount it will cost to repair.
These damages are simple to calculate, and with bills piling up, it’s easy to prove that you’ve had to pay them. But a significant problem arises. Most economic damages don’t actually go to victims. For example, awards for medical expenses are paid directly to doctors.
Pain & Suffering Is Complicated…
“Pain and suffering” falls into a different category: non-economic damages. It’s as obvious, and as complicated, as it sounds. You were injured, and it hurt. That pain is tangible; you feel it actively, and most reasonable people can imagine how it feels. We all agree that your pain is real. We also agree that you should be compensated in some way just for that. Beyond the medical bills you need to pay for the treatment of your injury, it’s terrible to feel pain because of that injury. And you should probably be awarded some money to make up for that terrible feeling, because it can ruin a life. Pain makes everything harder; you should be compensated for that hardship.
But how do you put “pain and suffering” into financial terms? How much is one minute of a sharp, stabbing pain worth? How much does it detract from your happiness, and how much is the loss of that happiness in dollars? And we haven’t even covered the psychological trauma of an injury, like the embarrassment and humiliation many victims experience after being scarred.
How Are Non-Economic Damages Calculated?
As you’d expect, there are no hard and fast rules that can translate pain and suffering into financial terms. It’s largely a matter of the judge or jury’s own discretion: opinions, beliefs and prejudices, along with the messy political issues that are always lurking in the shadows.
Insurance companies, which sometimes pay out compensation for pain and suffering, have one widely-accepted methods for determining the amount. This technique takes the actual, economic damages, like medical bills, and then multiplies that number by a “multiplier.” The multiplier is usually between 1 and 5; the more severe your injuries, the higher your multiplier.
Attorneys, on the other hand, often use a per diem approach. Settle on a reasonable amount for one day’s worth of pain and then multiply that amount by the number of days between your accident and when you recovered fully.
But in most cases, it’s still a matter of demanding a certain amount and seeing whether or not the jury agrees. Non-economic damages are actually very controversial. Several states have even placed caps on them, limits over which a jury cannot go:
- In Maryland, pain and suffering tops out at $350,000
- In Michigan, it’s $280,000
- West Virginia caps at $500,000
Many of these caps were put in place for a very specific reason: to limit the amount of medical malpractice lawsuits clogging State Courts. Medical malpractice cases are extremely common, and costly malpractice insurance policies are often cited as a leading cause for increased health care costs overall. The logic was simple: put a cap on how much plaintiff’s can demand, and many won’t pursue a lawsuit at all. Decreased exposure to liability will lower everyone’s healthcare premiums. But that might not be true. According to the National Institutes of Health, “the only study of whether consumers benefit from lower health insurance premiums as a result of damages caps found no impact.”
Types Of Non-Economic Damages
A scholar once said: “when in doubt, make distinctions.” As we’ve seen, the realm of non-economic damages is particularly foggy; there’s a lot of doubt. So you can expect the category of “pain and suffering” to be broken down into many subsidiary buckets:
- Physical pain
- Emotional suffering
- Damage to reputation
- Loss of enjoyment of life
- Loss of consortium – awarded usually to spouses or other family members for damage caused to familial relationships
Relevant Research: Duke University Crunches The Numbers
So how common are non-economic damages? Can you expect an award for pain and suffering if you have a valid case?
Pretty common, as it turns out. Out of 200 civil lawsuits, researchers from Duke University found that 91% of plaintiffs were awarded “non-economic damages.” Further, the majority of cases cited “pain and suffering” as the primary type of non-economic damage. Only 4% cited “emotional distress,” 2% “loss of consortium,” and 7% “loss of society.” Damages for “loss of a normal life,” on the other hand, were fairly regular, awarded in 48% of cases.
Investigating statistics for the Bureau of Justice, the academics found that juries were less likely to award high value pain and suffering damages as economic awards increased. Generally, the higher your medical expenses and lost wages, the less likely you are to receive millions in pain and suffering. This may explain the record amount awarded to Lin, the construction worker in the Bronx. Because his medical expenses were relatively low, the jury may have felt that an award of only $60,000 was insufficient to compensate him. Of course, this doesn’t quite account for a $62 million award, but taking Lin’s permanent disability into consideration might.