A Canadian courtroom never looks like the American television courtroom. Heated courtroom battles where lawyers dressed in business suits yell at each other using theatrical outbursts to persuade the jury and breathless investigators run into the courtroom at the 11th hour with a newly discovered piece of evidence, culminating in the court ordering a multi-million dollar medical malpractice award for the plaintiff – that doesn’t happen in Canada. Of course some of this excitement is purely tv-land drama, but some of it can be explained by the differences in our legal systems.
While there are many differences between the Canadian and American legal systems, a few of these differences contribute directly to the lower compensation a plaintiff can expect to receive for medical malpractice cases in Canada. This is true even if the negligence is caused by doctors’ mistakes or nurses’ mistakes. Here are some of those differences:
- Lower awards for pain and suffering in Canada – In 1978 the Supreme Court of Canada put an inflation-adjusted cap on how much a plaintiff can be compensated for the pain and suffering caused by a negligent defendant. In 2015, the most compensation that can be awarded for pain and suffering in Canada, no matter how catastrophic the injury, is about $350,000. Compare that to New York State alone where in 2011, 10 cases were awarded more than $3,500,000 for pain and suffering. Many US states are starting to put limits on claims for pain and suffering, and some of those limits are even lower than the Canadian cap. Nonetheless, there continues to be large awards available in a number of US jurisdictions.
- Socialized medicine lowers plaintiffs’ future costs – Plaintiffs can be awarded compensation for health care costs they will have to pay for themselves in the future. In Canada, defendants do not pay the plaintiff for provincially-funded health care, such as hospital in-patient care or physician appointments. In the United States, since an injured plaintiff may have to pay for future hospitalizations out of their own pocket, defendants can be required to compensate for those costs as well – this can amount to tens of millions of dollars.
- Jury awards are smaller in Canada – When judges decide how much a successful plaintiff should be awarded they must explain their decision in detailed written reasons. They are bound by the evidence presented and by decisions made in previous cases. Juries, on the other hand, do not write reasons to explain their findings. A sympathetic jury can award extremely high awards. Canadian juries tend to be much more conservative than their US counterparts, in part because the money to pay the awards often comes from tax funded programs such as ICBC, or hospitals. Large awards are viewed by some Canadian juries as coming out of their pockets as taxpayers. In addition, Canadian jury awards can be appealed if they are inordinately high and fall well outside the range of damages a judge would award.
- Punitive damages are less common in Canada – Our tort law system is aimed at compensating victims of negligence, not punishing the defendants. The compensation is intended to put the plaintiff back in the condition they would have been in if the negligence had not occurred – to the extent that is possible. In Canada, punitive damages are much less common than they are in the USA – in fact in medical malpractice lawsuits punitive damages are exceedingly rare.
People who have been injured by the negligence of a doctor, nurse or other health care professional can expect to be fairly compensated in Canada, and although the compensation awarded here is more modest than in the US, it can still provide some measure of comfort and assistance as people try to move forward with their lives after an injury caused by medical malpractice.