In California, an injured plaintiff may ordinarily claim economic, as well as non-economic, damages. Economic damages are readily quantifiable monetary expenses, such as lost wages and medical expenses. They are intended to compensate the plaintiff for actual, measurable expenses related to the injury. Non-economic damages (also sometimes called “pain and suffering” or “nonpecuniary”) damages are intended to compensate the injured individual for items without a readily ascertainable dollar value. California law generally does not limit the amount of either type of damages.
However, there are two significant exceptions to this general rule:
Medical Malpractice Cases In 1975, California enacted the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act. The Act’s stated purpose was to limit the size of malpractice judgments in order to contain the increase in malpractice insurance premiums. While the Act does not affect the number of economic damages, it limits the amount of non-economic damages recoverable in a malpractice case to $250,000.
As do all but two of the fifty United States, California makes driving without minimum liability insurance a violation of state law which may result in substantial fines and impoundment of the offender’s vehicle. Naturally, an uninsured driver will also face personal liability for an award of damages if he or she is found to be at fault in an accident-related lawsuit.
Though one might expect these would be adequate deterrence, this does not appear to be the case. By some estimates, 20% of motorists on California roads at any time are uninsured. This percentage is among the highest nationally and well above the national average of approximately 14%.
Drivers who comply with the law pay for those who choose not to do so. To protect themselves in the event of an accident with an uninsured driver, insurance experts strongly recommend obtaining “uninsured motorist” coverage, at an additional cost. Uninsured drivers also result in higher policy premiums as insurers’ losses are passed through to policyholders.
In addition to fines and vehicle impoundment, there is an additional less well-known penalty that an uninsured California driver may pay. The focus in any discussion of the uninsured motorist problem tends to be on uninsured drivers whose negligent conduct injures others. But what of the reverse situation; that is, one in which an uninsured driver is injured in an accident caused by one who is insured?
The uninsured driver may still recover economic damages. As discussed above, this allows him or her to recover lost wages, medical expenses and other readily ascertained monetary losses. Where an uninsured driver’s rights differ are in the area of pain and suffering damages. No matter how severe, disfiguring or painful his or her injuries, under California law an uninsured driver may not recover compensation for non-economic damages
There is one significant exception. The bar against non-economic damages does not apply in an accident between an insured driver and an uninsured one if the insured driver is determined to be at fault and is also convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs (“DUI”).