Texas Supreme Court to Offer New Guidance on Non-Economic Damages in Personal Injury Claims

Non-economic damages are a complicated part of personal injury claims. They represent subjective losses and do not have a definitive dollar value. How does one go about placing a monetary value on experiences like physical pain, mental suffering, or the loss of a loved one?

courtroom and justice scalesThe Texas Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in appeals for two wrongful death cases, Gregory v. Chohan and United Rentals v. Evans. These cases, along with the opinions of experts, have prompted the State of Texas to take another look at the standards by which non-economic damages are calculated, potentially bringing about a change or clarification soon.

What Are Non-Economic Damages?

Non-economic damages represent non-financial losses in a personal injury case. Examples of financial losses include lost wages, medical bills, and other direct costs related to an accident. Non-financial losses, on the other hand, can include loss of consortium (also known as loss of companionship, generally refers to the wrongful death of a spouse), loss of enjoyment of life, pain and suffering, and mental trauma.

Pain and suffering damages refer to the direct physical pain of injuries. Compensation for pain and suffering is therefore separate from compensation for the cost of treating those injuries. In other words, the plaintiff in a personal injury case can be awarded compensation to cover their medical treatment and mental health therapy, as well as for the pain and suffering they endured as a result of their accident injuries.

What Prompted the Texas Supreme Court’s New Guidance on Non-Economic Damages?

Two personal injury cases prompted the Texas Supreme Court’s clarification on how to award non-economic damages. The first, Gregory v. Chohan, was a wrongful death suit stemming from a car accident on black ice, which resulted in multiple fatalities. A jury awarded roughly $15 million to the surviving family members of the decedent for pain and suffering damages and loss of consortium.

In the other case, United Rentals v. Evans, the decedent was killed after a United Rentals driver drove an oversized load under a low bridge. The bridge beams collapsed onto an oncoming car, killing its occupant. $5 million was awarded to the decedent’s estate for the pain and suffering they endured prior to their passing.

Both cases were appealed and subsequently heard in the Fifth Court of Appeals in Dallas, TX. The court upheld the award in both cases, but with dissenting opinions, they asked the Texas Supreme Court for additional guidance or clarification on how to calculate non-economic damages.

Calculating Non-Economic Damages

Currently, there is little guidance on how to determine whether an award for non-economic damages is fair or excessive. Texas law states that in order for damages to be awarded for losses mental anguish and emotional distress, proof of mental suffering must be provided. The plaintiff’s side may need to provide evidence of the duration and severity of that mental suffering, as well.

However, the law does not specify whether this evidence is to be used only to prove that the mental anguish exists, or whether it can also be used to determine a fair dollar amount to award a plaintiff should they win their case. The Texas Supreme Court is expected to clarify this point, as well as provide additional guidance on the requirement for appealed personal injury cases. Specifically, when non-economic damages are appealed, the appellate court is to conduct a “meaningful review” of similar cases. Experts have suggested that the required review be of similar cases – particularly, with similar injuries as the ones in the case at hand.