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Disability as a Noneconomic Damage Element in Washington State

Posted by Bradley Thayer | Feb 06, 2020 | 0 Comments

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When a person is physically injured and seeking compensation, most folks think primarily about economic damages—or special damages that come with a monetary value already attached to them.  Things there is a receipt or other documentation for, such as medical bills, wage loss, prescription costs, etc.  Other forms of damages are commonly suffered when bodily injury occurs, though and those damages are characterized as noneconomic damages—general damages that do not have a easily fixed monetary value attached to them.  Typical noneconomic damages are pain and suffering and mental or emotional distress.

Where a physical injury results in disability, that disability might seem to fall under the economic damages category because a disability requires medical treatment and might lead to wage loss, among other economic damages.  Medical treatment and lost wages aren't the only damages likely to result from disabling physical injury, though.  A person's inability to live his or her life the way he or she did prior to the physical injury, generally, or to enjoy his or her life as much as was possible prior to the physical injury can also be a harm suffered.

Noneconomic damages, generally, are defined by RCW 4.56.250(1)(b) as subjective, nonmonetary losses, including, but not limited to pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, disability or disfigurement incurred by the injured party, emotional distress, loss of society and companionship, loss of consortium, injury to reputation and humiliation, and destruction of the parent-child relationship [emphasis added].

Although the statute above establishes disability as a noneconomic damage, “disability” is not defined by the statute.  The concept is explained, in part anyway, in Washington case law.  In Parris v. Johnson, 3 Wn.App. 853, 859-60, 479 P.2d 91 (1970), the court held that disability in terms of personal injury compensation means both:

  1. The incapacity to work; and,
  2. The inability to lead a normal life.

A “normal life” is determined by looking at what was normal given the injured person's unique circumstances prior to the physical injury having occurred.  The question then becomes to what extent has the injured person's quality of life been diminished?  And, is the inability to lead a normal life different from a loss of enjoyment of life?  In another case, Kirk v. Washington State University, 109 Wn.2d 448, 746 P.2d 285 (1987), the court found that an injured person can make a claim both for disability (or loss of normal life) and loss of enjoyment of life.  With respect to loss of enjoyment of life, though, that aspect of damages refers to an injured person having lost the enjoyment of a specific activity, like ballet dancing or some other artistic or athletic skill, for example.

Unfortunately, disabling injuries are not uncommon.  We see them often in our practice and many physical injuries that prove disabling for our clients lead to a permanent life-changing effect on the injured person's life.  As this blog has discussed—that means a disabled injured person could be compensated more in terms of damages for having to face a bleaker reality moving forward.  And possibly more still, to the extent he or she lost his or her ability to enjoy a particular artistic or athletic ability.

The field of personal injury law can be a fascinating one.  Honest and difficult questions present themselves daily in our practice.  There is perhaps no more fascinating and honest and difficult question that we face regularly than the one presented by this reality—money cannot and never will give an injured person back the life he or she enjoyed prior to the injury he or she suffered.  Even still, an injured person deserves compensation aimed appropriately at trying to make them whole again.  To say it another way, compensation which is as much as possible aimed at trying to provide the injured person a quality of life at the new normal with which he or she is left.

About the Author

Bradley Thayer

Brad Thayer is a partner at the Schauermann Thayer firm. Brad is licensed in both Oregon and Washington. He has been practicing law since 2015. He was presented the 2018 Rising Star Award by the Clark County Bar Association. Brad's practice focuses on automobile collision, motorcycle, bicycle, pedestrian injury, dog bite, and myriad other types of injury and insurance cases. During his free time, Brad enjoys following the Portland Trail Blazers, playing basketball, going to concerts, and playing the drums. He especially enjoys hiking in the Columbia River Gorge and exploring other Northwest wonders.

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