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Same Brain Injury, Same Accident, Different Compensation

Picture this: A high-powered business executive and his assistant have just arrived in Chicago for a conference. They rent a car at O’Hare and head down the highway toward their downtown hotel. The pair cruise down I-94 at a good speed because traffic is relatively light. Then, out of nowhere a taxi cab slams into the side of their rental car. The pair’s vehicle is thrown hard right and collides nearly head-on with the concrete side wall on the highway.

Investigations show that the taxi driver was obviously negligent. He attempted to change lanes without paying attention, swerving without realizing that the pair’s car was next to his.

The executive and his assistant suffer very serious traumatic brain injuries in the car accident. Their airbags deployed, but that did not prevent their heads from colliding with the hard interior of the car. Both will requires month of surgery and rehabilitation, and their ultimate ability to regain full functioning is unclear.

A injury lawsuit is filed, alleging that the taxi driver’s negligence resulted in the accident and resulting brain injury. A settlement cannot be reached, and so the case goes to trial. Because the facts are relatively straightforward, the jury finds for the plaintiffs and holds the taxi driver and company responsible for the injuries.

The executive is married to another high-powered business leader, and so his family of three, while grieving, is able to financially weather the accident. The assistant’s family, however, is thrown into chaos. She is also a mother of three, but she was the sole family breadwinner and her modest income was all the family had. Following her injury, they have been thrown into poverty.

What damages should they receive?

Logically, one might imagine that the two individuals should be entitled to the same damages. They were in the same accident, caused by the same negligent individual, and suffered the same injury.

Yet, in some locations, because of arbitrary caps on non-economic damages, the executive may receive a far larger award than the assistant. His injury is “worth more” under the law in this regard, because he had a much larger annual salary. When seeking damages the executive can show that his economic losses (lost wages) were far larger than the assistant’s loss. The cap on awarding compensation for non-economic damages (pain and suffering, loss of consortium, etc.) limits juries ability to level the playing field.

Tort Reform “Caps” and Inequality
As the above scenario highlights, caps on non-economic damages act as a severe limit on equality. Certain individuals–the elderly, low-income workers, children, stay-at-home parents–are unfairly affected by these laws. It is drastically unfair for juries to have their ability to decide fair compensation taken away, resulting in distorted judgments that favor one group of people over another, regardless of the injury or negligence involved.

When reading about “tort reform” laws, we encourage all community members to evaluate the proposals in this vein, with an appreciation for how it affects actual injured parties. The argument made by proponents ignore the real-world effects. The fact remains that the laws do not lower medical costs and do not increase access to patient care. They harm families and hurt the justice system’s mission of demanding fairness under the law.

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