Most lawsuits are brought by people seeking money damages that will compensate them for injuries they suffered from wrongful conduct by another person, the government or a business entity. While money can seem a poor substitute for some losses, like the loss of a loved one or a limb, a financial award is the primary way a civilized society attempts to make a person whole from injuries caused by another person's wrongdoing. The law recognizes two primary types of damages: compensatory and punitive.
Damages in a Lawsuit
The word damage is usually a verb in everyday English meaning to injure someone or something. But in legal terminology, it is a noun referring to two separate but related things. Someone who has been wronged or who has suffered injuries is said to have suffered damages, a term that encompasses everything they lost in the situation.
Curiously, the term is also used to specify the money a person gets from the wrongdoer. A person who goes to court to seek damages is asking for an award of money from the person at fault to compensate her for her losses or to punish the wrongdoer.
Essentially, all damages recoverable in a lawsuit fit into these two categories: compensatory damages to compensate for losses, and punitive damages to punish the wrongdoer and deter similar conduct in others.
Types of Damages: Compensatory Damages
The idea of compensating someone for his losses has always been at the heart of civil law. If a wrongdoer behaves in a way that causes harm to someone's person, property or interests, the law seeks, through money damages, to restore him to the position he had before the incident. A lawsuit seeking compensatory damages is sometimes referred to as a suit for actual damages.
Compensatory damages can be special damages or general damages. Special damages are the identifiable and concrete losses the person suffers; general damages are intended to cover other losses that are less specific, like compensation for pain and suffering or mental anguish. Some courts and legal commentators list general damages as a third, independent type of damages rather than a subset of compensatory damages.
Scope of Special Damages
Special damages include a person's out-of-pocket losses. These might include money he didn't get because of the incident, and money he had to spend as a result of injuries or losses in the incident. Special damages also include bills for medical care necessitated by the wrongdoer's behavior, the value of replacing property that was destroyed in the incident and any income that was lost because of his losses or injuries. These sums can usually be established fairly specifically by documentation the person produces from medical providers, employers and other sources.
Read More: What Is the Difference Between General and Special Damages in a Contract?
Scope of General Damages
General damages, in tort law, include a person's other losses, generally intangible injuries. These are losses that don't have a price tag and so are more difficult to calculate. For example, a person who is physically injured through the fault of another suffers pain and suffering. He cannot avoid the pain and suffering by receiving a specified sum of money.
Types of damage that fall into the category of general damages in tort cases include:
- Loss of companionship or consortium, such as if a loved one is injured or killed.
- Mental anguish.
- Pain and suffering.
- Loss of opportunity.
In contract law, the term general damages also includes damages that are intangible. This might include loss of opportunity or damage to the person's reputation.
Types of Damages: Punitive Damages
Punitive damages are relatively new to the legal system. They do not serve the standard purpose of damages over the ages – to make a person whole after she has been injured by a wrongdoer's conduct. Rather, they are intended as a monetary fine to punish a wrongdoer whose behavior is particularly egregious.
A person seeking punitive damages must meet a very high standard of proof in order to qualify for a punitive award. A punitive damage award can far exceed the amount of compensatory damages awarded. States limit punitive damage awards in different ways, some even capping the amount that can be recovered.
Understanding Tort Actions
In order to get a clear understanding of the types of damages available to an injured person in the legal system, it is helpful to get an overview of damages available in particular types of litigation. Tort actions are among the most common lawsuits filed in this country and therefore a good place to begin.
A tort case is an action brought by one person who claims to have been injured by or through the wrongful act of another. When a tort case is brought to court, the finder of fact – a judge or jury – must determine whether one person should be held legally accountable for an injury suffered by the other. The court must also rule on the type and amount of compensation the injured party should receive.
Four Elements of a Tort
The concept of tort is most easily explained by reference to the four elements a person must establish to win his case: duty, a breach of duty, causation and an injury. A typical tort case might be an injury in a vehicle accident. The injured person would have to show all of these elements:
Every driver has a duty to drive in a safe way that will not injure others, which is given.
The driver of the other car did not live up to this duty and, instead, drove negligently or recklessly.
- The negligence or reckless behavior caused the accident.
- The person was injured as a result of the accident.
Typical Damages in Tort Actions
Someone injured in an auto accident usually seeks compensatory damages, both special damages and general damages. His special damages might include:
- Damage to his vehicle, meaning the costs to return it to its prior condition or to replace it.
- Damage to any property inside the vehicle that was damaged, like a laptop computer that smashed into the windshield in the crash.
- Cost of the ambulance to take him to the hospital.
- Cost of the tow truck to get his vehicle to the repair shop.
- Medical bills for his broken bones.
- Compensation for earnings for the work he missed because of the accident.
His general damages would include any other losses he suffered that do not have an exact monetary value. They include compensation for pain and suffering, meaning the physical pain and emotional upset he goes through as a result of the accident. This will be the court or jury's estimation of the amount that would appropriately compensate him for the immediate pain and suffering from the injuries suffered, as well as any lingering physical or emotional issues, like continuing back pain, depression or anxiety.
Damages in Contract Actions
Contract disputes rarely involve physical personal injury damages. Rather, one party to a contract usually claims that the other party did not live up to the contract terms. The damages sought and received in this kind of lawsuit are intended to return the injured party to the position she would have been in had the contract terms been fulfilled.
The typical damages a party seeks in contract actions are compensatory. Contract lawsuits might seek payment for services rendered as agreed in the contract or the cost incurred by the injured party to pay someone else to do the work the other party agreed, but failed, to do. A party can also seek restitution, or return of the amount she paid the other party in advance for all or part of the work.
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.