In 2005—in response to a push for tort reform, based on concerns over excessive jury awards and costly defense to frivolous legal claims—Ohio legislators enacted restrictions on the amount of damages that could be awarded in personal injury lawsuits. Over a decade later, damage caps have become folded into the fabric of personal injury legal practice—in some cases, with unintended results.
Caps apply to the kind of damages typically referred to as “pain and suffering”—those non-monetary losses suffered from enduring an injury, such as long term (but not necessarily diagnosed as permanent) pain, emotional distress, complications to relationships, limitations in ability to perform previous activities, and other life challenges that don’t come with a specific price tag. Recovery for such noneconomic damages is limited to $250,000 (or $350,000 if three times the economic damages is more than $250,000), except where the injury is deemed permanent or resulted in death.
As a practical matter, the recovery cap doesn’t just keep a lid on jury verdicts: It effectively forecloses the option for many people to bring a lawsuit at all. Steve Crandall, a personal injury attorney at CPW Law in Cleveland, frequently finds it isn’t cost-effective to take these cases. “Ohio’s cap is really restrictive in non-death cases,” he says. “In death cases, the cap doesn’t apply—but if it’s a survivorship case, the cap is really low. The reality is, there are a lot of cases I can’t take. Even if the pain and suffering is significant, if they don’t have a high amount of lost wages or permanent damage, I can’t take them. It’s worth too little.”
The impact of this change has greatly reduced personal injury claims in Ohio. “This has really chilled people filing lawsuits. Cases went from about 5,000 filed per year to 1,800 or 2,000 per year,” says Crandall. “It has just devastated people’s ability to bring cases forward, but that’s why they did it.”
He adds: “It’s something people should know because I can’t tell you how many people I can’t help much because their damages are low. When people learn of this law, they’re obviously upset. This is one example of why people need to be more involved in what the legislature is doing.”
As noted, there is an exception to the cap in noneconomic damages for a “catastrophic” injury. This is defined under the law as either a permanent physical deformity, loss of limb, loss of bodily organ or permanent functional injury requiring dependent care. Whether an injury qualifies as catastrophic has been determined to be a question of fact for a jury, but must be “severe and objective,” according to case law. Scarring and/or pain may or may not qualify, depending largely on the severity and the findings of a particular judge or jury.
Because this exception requires some fairly complicated analysis, and can draw from legal precedent that’s subject to change, it’s important to speak to an experienced plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer if you have questions about your own situation.