Types of Personal Injury Damages and Compensation

Calculating the value of a personal injury case starts with an understanding of common types of compensation.

Updated by Stacy Barrett, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

If you've been injured as a result of the carelessness ("negligence") or intentional wrongdoing of another person or organization, you might be entitled to compensation for your losses. The legal term for this type of compensation is "damages."

Before you file an insurance claim or personal injury lawsuit, here's what you need to know about damages:

  • Damages are typically broken down into two categories—compensatory and punitive.
  • The purpose of compensatory damages is to make the injured person whole again. Examples of compensatory damages include out-of-pocket expenses like medical bills and compensation for pain and suffering.
  • The purpose of punitive damages is to punish the person or organization that caused harm.
  • Compensatory damages are available in all personal injury cases. Punitive damages are only awarded in a small number of cases.

You'll need to understand the types of compensation available to get a ballpark estimate of how much your personal injury case might be worth.

Common Types of Personal Injury Cases

Personal injury law, also called "tort" law, is designed to compensate people who've been harmed because of other people's actions. Examples of typical personal injury claims include:

Car accidents: Car accidents give rise to most personal injury claims and lawsuits in the United States. Car accidents typically happen when drivers aren't following the rules of the road. In most states, the driver who is at fault for the accident is responsible for paying for injuries and losses caused by the accident. Most car accident claims settle through the insurance claim process. If settlement talks fail or the at-fault driver is uninsured, you might have to file a car accident lawsuit.

Slip and fall cases: Another common type of personal injury case is a "slip and fall" case, sometimes called a "premises liability" case. Property owners have a legal duty to keep their businesses and homes safe. If someone is injured because the property is unsafe, the injured person can sue the property owner for damages. Learn more about what you have to prove to win a slip and fall claim.

Product liability: People who are injured by a defective or unreasonably dangerous product can sue the manufacturer and seller of the product in a product liability claim. Some product liability cases are mass torts involving hundreds of thousands of injured plaintiffs.

Intentional torts: Most personal injury claims involve accidents, but you can sue someone who intentionally harms you. For example, if someone assaults you, the person who assaulted you can be criminally prosecuted for the assault and you can sue that person in civil court for damages.

Other examples of personal injury cases include medical malpractice, dog bite injury, defamation, wrongful death, and child sexual abuse lawsuits.

Two Types of Compensatory Damages

Compensatory damages are meant to compensate plaintiffs for their losses. They are intended to make plaintiffs whole again after an injury, to the extent that's possible. You can divide compensatory damages into two main categories: special and general.

Special Damages

Special damages (also called "economic damages'') compensate plaintiffs for out-of-pocket expenses related to their injuries. Examples of special damages include:

  • lost income (past and future)
  • medical bills (past and future)
  • the cost to repair or replace damaged property, and
  • household services while the plaintiff is recovering.

In nearly all states, there is no limit on the amount of special damages a plaintiff can recover in a personal injury case. Plaintiffs have the burden of proving the amount of their damages by a "preponderance of the evidence" (more likely than not) standard.

General (Non-Economic)

General damages (also called "non-economic damages") are harder to measure than special damages. They are meant to compensate plaintiffs for intangible losses associated with an injury like "pain and suffering."

Examples of general damages include:

  • pain and suffering (physical and mental)
  • physical disability or disfigurement
  • loss of reputation, and
  • loss of enjoyment of life.

Learn more about special and general damages.

Wrongful Death Damages

When someone is killed as a result of the negligence or intentional wrongdoing of another person, the victim's surviving family members may file a wrongful death claim or lawsuit.

Examples of wrongful death damages include:

  • funeral and burial expenses
  • emotional distress
  • cost of the deceased person's pre-death medical care and pain and suffering (called a "survival claim")
  • loss of the deceased person's expected income
  • value of the services that the deceased person would've provided, and
  • loss of consortium.

Wrongful death lawsuits are typically filed by a representative of the estate of the deceased victim on behalf of survivors. Exactly who qualifies as a survivor varies from state to state.

Punitive Damages

Compensatory damages are meant to reimburse plaintiffs for their losses. Punitive damages are different. Punitive damages are meant to punish defendants for their bad behavior. In many states, punitive damages are limited to cases involving intentional misconduct, like aggravated battery, sexual assault, or fraudulent behavior that causes widespread financial harm. Other states allow punitive damages in cases involving "gross negligence." Defendants are grossly negligent when they disregard the safety or lives of others.

Personal Injury Claims vs. Personal Injury Lawsuits

You can recover damages by filing a personal injury claim, filing a personal injury lawsuit, or sometimes both.

Personal Injury Claim

You file a personal injury claim with an insurance company. You file a first-party claim with your own insurance company. You file a third-party claim with the insurance company of the person or entity that hurt you. The claims process doesn't involve the courts. Instead, you try to negotiate a settlement privately with an insurance company.

Personal Injury Lawsuits

A personal injury lawsuit is a civil lawsuit that you file in court. You might file a lawsuit after settlement talks with the insurance company break down or you might choose to file a lawsuit right away to comply with the "statute of limitations" in your state. You can continue to negotiate a settlement during the lawsuit process. If you can't reach an agreement, you'll have to dismiss your case or go to trial.

Learn more about steps in a personal injury lawsuit.

How to Collect Damages

You can receive damages in a negotiated settlement or a court award. But how do you actually get your money?

If you've reached a settlement with an insurance company, the process is pretty easy. You'll sign a release and receive your settlement check. Insurance companies will usually pay settlements or court awards without hassle, up to policy limits.

If you receive a court award after trial, collecting your money can get more complicated. You may have to wait while the other side appeals the case.

Some defendants might not be able or willing to pay. An attorney can help you collect by trying to find undisclosed assets, placing property liens, and even garnishing wages.

Learn more about collecting your injury settlement or money judgment.

Talk to a Lawyer

If you are thinking about filing a personal injury claim or lawsuit, talk to a lawyer. A lawyer can answer your questions and help you calculate your personal injury settlement value.

Learn more about hiring a personal injury lawyer. You can also connect with a lawyer directly from this page for free.

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