The plaintiff underwent a surgery performed by the defendant, and, in the course of the operation, was deprived of oxygen. This led to brain damage and a permanent coma.
A plaintiff must be aware of her loss of enjoyment of life to be compensated for it, and that loss must be considered under the umbrella of pain and suffering damages rather than separately.
On September 7, 1978, the plaintiff, 31 years old at the time, underwent a Caesarean section and tubal ligation at the New York Infirmary performed by the defendant surgeon. During the surgery, the plaintiff suffered oxygen deprivation, which resulted in severe brain damage and left her in a permanent coma. The parties dispute whether the plaintiff has the ability to feel pain in her comatose state.
(1) Is some degree of cognitive awareness a prerequisite to recovery for loss of life?
(2) Should a jury be instructed to consider and award damages for loss of enjoyment of life separately from damages for pain and suffering?
(1) Yes. A plaintiff cannot be compensated for that which she is unaware.
(2) No. Loss of enjoyment of life should fall under pain and suffering for the sake of awarding damages.
Judge Titone believes that loss of enjoyment of life should be its own separate category from pain and suffering. He thinks the overlap only exists if one assumes that loss of enjoyment of life only compensates the emotional response to the limitation of life’s activities.
The court begins by pointing out that the reason for damages is to compensate the victim, not to punish the wrongdoer. In cases where the harm is not economic, the tort system still uses money damages as a means of compensation and solace but only until the point where the compensatory function of the tort system ceases to be served. In this case, someone who is unaware of the enjoyment of life (i.e. in a coma) cannot be compensated for the loss of such enjoyment, as the money would have no meaning or utility to the victim. A victim needs to have some awareness of the circumstance in order to recover. Traditionally, courts have considered loss of enjoyment of life as a subcategory of pain and suffering. The court here sees no reason to depart from that traditionally held notion, as the larger separate awards would not serve the compensatory goal of the tort system.