Don’t believe the headlines when it comes to personal injury verdicts.

From yesterday’s Legal Intelligencer, we get the following headline:

Delco Jury Awards $5.4M to Brain-Damaged Cyclist.

Anyone reading that headline would assume this was a jackpot for the plaintiff. However, from the third paragraph of the article, we get this:

“The state government was the only defendant at trial. Although state law caps recovery for civil damages against state agencies at $250,000, [Plaintiffs’ attorney Thomas] Sacchetta said the total recovery from Pennsylvania will be $500,000 since both [the victim and his wife] will recover the maximum $250,000 for their claims.”

Claims against the government, whether it be federal, state, or local, are subject to strict restrictions. In Pennsylvania, claims against state agencies have a damages cap of $250,000, and claims against local agencies have a damages cap of $500,000. Despite this, newspaper headlines often make it appear that a plaintiff will recover every penny of the jury award. This was particularly noticeable in the coverage of the 2011 Bucks County verdict of $14 million against Pennsbury School District for a girl who lost her leg in a bus incident. The headlines made it appear that the victim would receive $14 million. In reality, her damages were capped at $500,000.

Why does it matter? In the debate surrounding tort reform, people are often under the impression that runaway juries are handing out millions of dollars for every stubbed toe. They are unaware that the headlines do not tell the whole story regarding the actual amounts paid out. Tort reform is already in effect. The question is not whether we will pass tort reform legislation, it is whether we will take the already strict tort reform laws and, at the urging of insurance companies and big businesses, add to them to make it even more difficult for victims to be compensated for their injuries.

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