Recovering from an accident? Learn what compensatory damages are and how they can help you after a life-altering injury.
The aim of any personal injury claim or lawsuit is to make you whole. You want to be in the same financial position as you would have been had your injury never happened. While that is rarely possible, the law tries to get you as close as it can. It does this with compensatory damages.
In their most basic form, compensatory damages represent an amount of money that reimburses you for the costs of your injury. They also reimburse you for medical treatment or therapy you need in the future. But they can do even more than that. If you can’t work because of your injury, compensatory damages can replace your income.
The law also uses compensatory damages to pay you for your emotional distress. Maybe your injury has prevented you from ever taking a family vacation. That loss, though it doesn’t have a clear dollar amount, can also be a part of your actual damages.
Nor are compensatory damages just for you as the injured person. Your spouse may suffer the loss of your emotional support and even intimate relations as a result of your injury.
This article will examine the nature and scope of compensatory damages in American personal injury law. Most personal injury cases will never proceed to a jury trial. But it’s still important to understand how to prove these damages in court and what a jury might award.
Insurance companies take potential jury awards into consideration in making settlement offers out of court.
Types of Compensatory Damages
In a general sense, there are two broad categories of compensatory damages that you can recover in a personal injury lawsuit- Special and General damages.
The focus of compensatory damages is to look at how your life has been affected by the injury, and making the party that hurt you pay for those effects.
1. Special Damages (Economic Damages)
Special damages are measurable losses that form the core of most personal injury claims. Your medical bills and records are critical for establishing these amounts. These show how you have been injured and what you have had to pay to treat your injury.
Opinions and prognoses from your doctor are also important because they show what medical care you may need in the future. Future medical expenses can be tricky because you may not know today what kind of complications your injury will cause you in 10 years. These kinds of injuries, known as long-term or permanent injuries, form a key part of your special damages.
Another common type of special damages is lost ability to support yourself. This can be a loss of earnings, but it’s also far more than that. For example, let’s say that you are a master electrician and you get into an automobile accident. You suffer a head injury that leaves you with memory and motor problems that prevent you from safely working on electrical systems again.
In this case, you haven’t merely lost wages. You have lost the ability to earn a living doing the job you trained for. You are then likely to recover the amount that you would have earned over your career as an electrician, if only the accident had never happened. Cases like this one are high value, requiring a personal injury attorney and expert testimony.
2. General Damages (Non-Economic Damages)
General damages aren’t as clear-cut as special damages. These damages are awarded to compensate you for the loss of enjoyment of your life and other subjective experiences as a result of your injury.
The most well-known basis for an award of general damages is pain and suffering. This is a subjective measurement of the physical and mental anguish that your injury has caused you and will continue to inflict. This type of recovery is also permitted in cases where an injury has resulted in disfigurement or disability.
Other subjective measures can also serve as a basis for an award of general damages. Let’s say that you are an avid cyclist who bikes several miles every weekend. After a car accident, your pelvis is shattered. Though you recover your ability to walk, you have chronic pain. That pain prevents you from riding a bicycle again.
In this case, your loss of the ability to enjoy cycling as a result of the car accident is a legitimate and significant basis for an award of general damages.
Your family members may have also suffered as a result of your injury. They may be able to recover their own general damages based on the loss of affection and your familial relationship. It’s not just about sexual relations. Your child, spouse, or parent may have a claim for loss of consortium based on the loss of your companionship and support due to your injury.
Consider Consequential Damages
When taking stock of how much you need to be compensated for your injury, don’t limit yourself to circumstances surrounding your injury.
You may have special circumstances in your life that make your injury hit harder. These effects cause what are known as consequential damages, and you can often recover them as part of your compensation.
Because these circumstances are case-specific, you should have a discussion with a personal injury lawyer if you believe they should be a part of your claim.
One example of consequential damages might be lost business opportunities. For example, let’s say that you were planning to merge your small business with a larger, wealthy company that was going to pay you $1 million as a part of the transaction.
You then slip and fall in a big box store, suffering a serious head injury. Your injury makes you unable to fulfill your part of the business deal that would be critical after the merger took place. The purchasing business then reconsiders the merger and backs out of the deal.
In this case, you could have a strong claim for consequential damages. In other words, as a result of your injury, you lost the opportunity to make $1 million.
Calculating Compensatory Damages
As a matter of course, the vast majority of cases don’t go to trial. In other words, your personal injury claim is more likely to settle out of court. That doesn’t mean that you can cut corners when assembling the evidence of your damages.
For your economic damages, have all the bills, medical records and financial evidence gathered at the beginning.
Having organized evidence of your economic costs will make it very difficult for an insurance company to deny your claim or pay you less than you deserve. It will also make your life easier if your case does proceed to court.
You can also gather evidence for your non-economic damages. Keep a pain journal to track your pain and suffering. Talk with your family and encourage them to observe and record how your life has changed since your injury. Also be sure to note any special circumstances that may give rise to an award of consequential damages.
As a rule of thumb, a court would generally award the amount of your specific, economic damages. Consequential damages would also be calculated according to specific evidence, though an insurance company would be more likely to dispute these the further they get from the circumstances of your actual injury.
Compensatory damages are typically calculated as the total of your special damages with an additional 1 or 2 times that amount added on to account for your general damages.
Use the Law To Repair Your Life
No one asks for a life-changing injury. You deserve to live your life without being hurt by the negligence or acts of others. You shouldn’t be shy about asking for compensation in the amount that it takes to get you back to where you were before the injury.
Compensatory damage claims don’t focus on whether the behavior of the person or company that hurt you was intentional. In fact, compensatory damages are available even if your injury was an accident, so long as you or your attorney can prove negligence.
If you are severely injured by someone who intended to cause harm, or who ignored a hazard without regard for your safety, your attorney might ask the court for punitive damages in addition to your compensatory damages. You can’t ask for punitive damages outside of court.
Punitive damages aren’t related to the extent of your injury. Rather, they are meant to punish particularly bad or cruel behavior by the person or company that hurt you. For example, California allows awards of punitive damages where the person that injured you acted with malice, oppression or fraud. Most other states have similar laws.
If you or a loved one has been injured, contact a qualified personal injury attorney in your state for a free consultation and case evaluation.
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