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Online Extra: The View from the States

State legislatures have been experimenting with legal reforms for decades. Many already cap medical malpractice damage awards, limit attorney fees, and shield defendants from taking on full liability when they're only partly to blame for an accident or injury. Other ideas are more novel, such as California's "apology law," which bars a defendant's expression of sympathy from being used as evidence of guilt, or a statute that pegs the size of punitive damage awards to a defendant's net worth, which is how they do it in Kansas. Here's a snapshot of the state of play:


Strict venue rules limit where a case may be filed. Judges may assess court costs and attorney's fees against parties who bring frivolous suits. Defendants in class action suits may temporarily halt legal proceedings to appeal certification of the class.


Non-economic and punitive damages are capped, and attorney contingency fees in medical malpractice cases are limited.


Restaurants can't be sued by customers seeking restitution for weight gain or obesity-related illness. Pharmaceutical companies have an added defense against punitive damage claims if their drugs were approved by the FDA.


Expert witnesses in medical malpractice trials must be certified by the court. Punitive damages can't exceed $1 million. Lawsuits may be filed only where the harm occurred, or where the plaintiff or defendant live.


Apologies, expressions of sympathy, or benevolent acts by a defendant to a plaintiff can't be used in court. Pain-and-suffering damages are capped, and attorney fees are limited in medical malpractice cases. Inherently unsafe products such as alcohol, cigarettes, or high-fat foods cannot be targeted with product liability suits.


Resorts are shielded from lawsuits by injured skiers. Volunteers at crisis telephone hotlines are exempt from civil liability related to their work. Punitive damages can't exceed economic damages.


Judges may fine plaintiffs bringing frivolous suits twice the amount of court costs and attorneys fees. Economic damage awards may be reduced by the amount a victim's expenses are covered by other sources such as insurance.


Damages in medical liability cases may be paid out over time rather than in one lump sum. Attorney fees are limited in medical malpractice cases. Economic damage awards may be reduced by the amount a victim's expenses are covered by other sources such as insurance.


Retailers who make powered shopping carts available to their customers are protected from liability. A landowner's liability to injured trespassers is limited.


Judges may decline to hear lawsuits filed by non-residents. Restaurants can't be sued by customers seeking damages for weight gain or related illnesses.


Protects municipal governments from having to bear full financial responsibility in cases where they are only partially at fault.


Protects employers from liability for acts committed by employees who are off the job. Raises the bar for winning punitive damages, and limits punitive awards to $250,000 or three times economic damages, whichever is greater.


Economic damages may be offset by other sources of coverage, such as insurance, but only up to 50% of the judgment. Employers are protected from liability for providing employee references, except when maliciously providing false information.


A product is presumed to be not defective if it conformed with safety guidelines recognized at the time it was manufacture red. In medical malpractice cases, recoverable damages are limited to $1.25 million; anything above that is paid out of a state fund.


A driver, passenger or pedestrian can't collect pain-and-suffering damages for injuries sustained in an automobile crash caused during the commission of a felony.


Punitive damages are limited to a defendant's annual gross income, or $5 million, which ever is less. Pain-and-suffering awards can't exceed $250,000.


In cases involving multiple defendants, juries must determine the amount of fault appropriate to each and apportion payouts accordingly. Damages recoverable against a city are limited.


Food vendors and distributors are shielded from being sued by customers seeking damages for weight gain or obesity-related illnesses. Health care providers have limited liability in cases involving blood transfusions and organ transplants.


Unpaid directors, officers and volunteers of non-profit organizations are shielded from liability, as are emergency room physicians.


Businesses that imposed now-illegal late fees in good faith are protected from liability. Non-economic damages in wrongful death cases are capped at $500,000.


Pain-and-suffering awards for medical malpractice are capped at $500,000, unless the victim is disfigured or permanently impaired.


Manufacturers facing product liability cases are shielded if the plaintiff was intoxicated or using a controlled substance. Pain-and-suffering awards are limited to $500,000 in product liability and medical malpractice cases.


Volunteer doctors and athletic trainers are protected from liability for giving care at non-profit team sporting events.


Punitive damage caps are calculated based on the defendant's net worth. Companies that clean up Superfund sites, sponsors of community events, and retailers who unwittingly sell defective products are shielded from liability.


Manufacturers, packers, distributors, sellers, marketers, and advertisers of food are shielded from obesity and weight-gain lawsuits.

A jury's decision to award punitive damages must be unanimous.


Courts may review contingency fees in medical and professional liability cases, and assess court costs and attorneys' fees for frivolous claims or defenses.


Medical liability damages against emergency room physicians is limited to $50,000. Pain-and-suffering awards for medical liability are capped at $350,000 except in instances involving "gross malpractice."

New Hampshire

Punitive damages are prohibited. Courts must sign off on contingency fees in medical liability cases that exceed $200,000. Retired doctors are shielded from liability for performing volunteer work.

New Jersey

Punitive damages can't exceed five times economic damages, or $350,000, whichever is greater. Cases involving bias crimes, discrimination, AIDS testing disclosure, sexual abuse, and injuries caused by drunk drivers are exempt from the cap.

New Mexico

Places a loose cap on medical liability damages, and offers very limited protections to manufacturers and retailers in product liability cases.

New York

Twenty percent of all punitive damage awards must be paid into the state's general fund.

North Carolina

Volunteers at local health department facilities and non-profit community health centers are granted immunity from civil cases.

North Dakota

Economic damages exceeding $250,000 are subject to court review reasonableness. Punitive damages are limited to two times economic damages, or $250,000, whatever is greater.


Pain-and-suffering damages are capped at $350,000 in pregnancy and post-partum cases. Medical malpractice cases are screened for merit. Contingency fees can't exceed 50% of a plaintiff's recovery in medical liability suits.


Sixty percent of punitive damage awards must be paid to the state's general fund. No more than 20% of punitive damages may be paid to the plaintiff's attorney.


Patients may not sue for damages covered by health insurance. Punitive damages are limited to 200% of economic awards.

Rhode Island

Economic damages may be reduced by the amount of expenses covered by state disability, workers' compensation, or health insurance.

South Carolina

Skating rink operators are shielded from liability for injuries or death sustained while ice skating or roller skating.

South Dakota

Manufacturers, trade associations, livestock producers, and retailers of food are protected from obesity lawsuits. The law, passed in 2004, applied retroactively to pending cases.


Contingency fees in medical liability cases may not exceed 33.3% of damage awards.


Juries must be instructed that a bad medical outcome does not necessarily justify a finding of negligence. A jury must be unanimous in its decision to award punitive damages.


Except in emergencies, physicians may withhold services if a patient does not consent to arbitration. In medical malpractice cases, non-economic damages are capped at $250,000, and contingency fees can't exceed one-third the amount recovered.


Medical malpractice claims must be submitted to an arbitration panel before going to trial.


Witnesses in medical liability cases must have recent clinical practice in the specialty in question. There is a limit to the number of expert witnesses that can be called to testify in medical malpractice cases.


A defendant's apology to a plaintiff may not be used as evidence in court.

West Virginia

The Board of Medicine must investigate providers who have had three judgments or five settlements within five years. Medical malpractice cases must be screened for merit.


Damages in wrongful death cases are limited to $500,000 for a minor and $350,000 for an adult. Plaintiffs suing over injuries caused while playing a contact sport must prove that the defendant's behavior was reckless.


Volunteers at nonprofit hospitals and clinics are protected from civil liability.

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