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Court Fails to Protect Older Victims of Wrongdoing

AARP urged a California appeals court to allow juries to see total medical bills, not just insurance company payments, in determining tort awards. An appeals court in California disagreed.

Background

Tort recovery permits awards of economic damages (actual out-of-pocket costs, lost wages and lost future wages) as well as noneconomic damages (pain and suffering already suffered, future pain and suffering, etc.) This is because tort awards are designed to both compensate victims and deter wrongdoing — one of the most effective ways to deter bad behavior is to hit the wrongdoer in the pocketbook.

An appeals court in California considered what evidence could be presented by a victim in arguing for noneconomic damages and future medical expenses. The defendant wanted to prevent the jury from hearing about the total amount billed and asked the court to reverse the lower court’s ruling. The plaintiffs argued that the jury should consider the amount that the victim would have been billed had they not had insurance, an amount which is much larger than the amount insurance paid for that care. This is of particular importance to plaintiffs because it is not always clear what type of insurance an individual will have in the future.

AARP’s friend-of-the-court brief emphasized that it is important for jurors to have complete evidence when calculating noneconomic damages and future medical expenses, and the best source of information for this is to see full medical bills — not just the share covered by insurance. The brief explained that the issue of noneconomic damages is especially important for older people because these are the primary means through which they will recover their damages, given that their lost future wages will be contingent on how much longer they have in the workforce. The brief also outlined how capping noneconomic damages limits access to justice because tort attorneys often work on contingency, capping possible recovery will impede the ability to attract competent legal representation.

The court disagreed with plaintiffs and AARP, finding that existing California case law required that the jury see only the amount paid by the insurance company. “We conclude that evidence of the full amounts billed for plaintiffs’ medical care was not relevant to the amount of damages for past medical services, damages for their future medical care, or noneconomic damages,” reads the opinion.

What’s at Stake

Without adequate noneconomic damages, older adults will not receive their due when victimized by another’s wrongdoing, and wrongdoers will reap a windfall from harming an older person. Because a retiree may have very little in the way of current or future earnings, economic damages will be capped very low. Finally, eliminating the possibility of recovery for actual medical costs penalizes people who were responsible enough to purchase health insurance from the start.

Case Status

Corenbaum v. Lampkin was decided by the Second District Court of Appeal in California.