In personal injury cases, "damages" is a term that refers to the amount of money awarded to the injured party (or plaintiff) who suffered harm due to the negligent, reckless, or intentional action of the defendant. Damages can be grouped as either general or special -- also commonly referred to as non-economic and economic damages. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at both kinds of damages, along with examples of each.
General damages flow naturally from the defendant's wrongful action. There is a clear link between the defendant's behavior and the plaintiff's injury. In most cases, the ability of the defendant to anticipate the injury (or the severity of the harm) does not bar the plaintiff from receiving full compensation for his or her general damages. For example, let’s assume that Driver A is the at-fault driver in a seemingly minor car accident with Driver B, who has a rare bone condition which severely aggravates bodily injuries. Driver A is liable for all of Driver B’s general damages, even if a person without the rare bone condition might not have suffered any significant level of general damages. Another way of saying this is, when it comes to general damages, as a defendant "you take the plaintiff as you find him (or her)."
While every personal injury case will look a little different, general damages can include:
It may be difficult to calculate or precisely quantify the amount of money necessary to compensate the injured person for general damages. Determining general damages often involves assigning an exact dollar amount to a subjective injury. Damages such as mental anguish or embarrassment are unique to each plaintiff. Factors that may determine a damage award include the gruesomeness of an injury, the skill of the attorneys, and the sensitivities of the jury. Because of these imprecise factors, damage awards in seemingly similar personal injury cases often vary.
Special damages financially compensate the injured person for losses suffered due to the defendant's actions. Special damages are out-of-pocket expenses that can be determined by adding together all the plaintiff's quantifiable financial losses. However, these losses or expenses must be proven with specificity. Using another car accident example, the at-fault party (or his or her insurance company) is liable for the value of the other driver's totaled car. The value of the car can be established pretty easily (by looking at Kelley Blue Book and other vehicle valuation tools) and falls into the category of special damages.
Every personal injury case will look a little different when it comes to specific kinds of special damages, but some common categories include:
Unlike general damages, special damages are often easy to calculate because an exact dollar amount has already been spent on these items. A negligent house guest breaks a lamp. The homeowner paid $50 for the lamp. Therefore, the negligent house guest is liable for special damages of $50. It gets a little more complicated when you need to put a dollar figure on the cost of future medical care or future wage loss tied to the injury, but it can be done through the use of expert witnesses and other evidence.
An injured person can seek both general and special damages. In a personal injury case involving physical injury, the plaintiff will seek to recover money for medical expenses. If the injury caused the plaintiff to miss work for a period of time, he or she can seek additional money for lost wages.
Serious physical injuries can be accompanied by pain and suffering, which is categorized as general damages. As a final car accident example, a person injured in a car accident can recover medical expenses for a broken back and pain and suffering for living with a body cast for an extended period of time and experiencing ongoing pain. If you want to make a claim for pain and suffering, there are several factors that will affect your negotiating leverage.