What Are Special and General Damages In Your Personal Injury Case?

Special and general damages (often called "economic" and "non-economic" damages respectively) are the two main categories of compensable losses in a personal injury case.

Updated by , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

If you're making a personal injury claim after any kind of accident, here's what to know at the outset when it comes to the kinds of compensation you might be able to recover:

  • "Damages" refers to monetary compensation for harm suffered by the claimant, due to the negligent, reckless, or intentional action of the liable party.
  • Personal injury damages can mostly be grouped as either "general" (also called "non-economic") or "special" (often called "economic").
  • Seeing examples of different kinds of damages can inform the possibilities for your own personal injury claim.

What Are General Damages In a Personal Injury Case?

General damages are the kind that are said to "flow naturally" from the defendant's wrongful action. In other words, 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. An example might help illustrate this.

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 that 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)."

Types of General Damages

While every personal injury case will look a little different, general damages can include:

Calculating General Damages In a Personal Injury Case

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 severity 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.

What Are Special Damages In a Personal Injury Case?

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. Maybe the best example of special damages in a personal injury is the injured person's medical bills resulting from all medical treatment made necessary by the accident.

And, on the property damage side, 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.

Types 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:

  • repair and replacement of damaged property
  • lost wages and loss of earning capacity
  • cost of medical treatment (past and future)
  • cost of hiring assistance for performing household tasks the injured person can no longer perform, and
  • loss of irreplaceable items.

Calculating Special Damages In a Personal Injury Case

Unlike general damages, special damages are often easy to calculate because an exact dollar amount has already been spent on these items, or the amount lost can be established through existing documentation.

For example, after a slip and fall, the claimant received medical treatment (at the ER, at their own doctor, and from a physical therapist) totaling $7,500. The claimant also missed three days of work recovering from their injuries. They took PTO, but they're entitled to payment for having to use that accumulated time off. At $400 a day, that's $1,200 in lost income. So, the claimant's special damages amount to $8,700 ($7,500 + $1,200 = $8,700).

Let's say the claimant happened to be holding an antique lamp they'd just purchased at the time of the slip and fall. The lamp is valued at $2,000. That would be added to the claimant's special damages, making the negligent property owner liable for $10,700.

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.

Making Your Case for Damages After an Injury

Having a skilled legal professional on your side is the best way to ensure you make your best case for damages after any kind of accident. A lawyer will consider your situation from all angles and make sure every loss is included in your claim. You can use the tools on this page to connect with a lawyer in your area, or check out our Guide to Hiring a Personal Injury Lawyer.

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