Awarding Damages: How Courts Value Personal Injury Cases

Tell Us Your Story

Posted on Thursday, May 2nd, 2024 at 2:51 pm    

Reviewed and edited by Nicholas P. Kelly, Esq. 

In a personal injury lawsuit, the person who has been harmed—the plaintiff—goes through the civil court system to seek justice. Through their litigation, they assert that the defendant’s conduct caused them harm, either intentionally or through carelessness. 

Civil cases provide an alternative option to criminal cases for those seeking justice. While a criminal case may result in jail time, the consequences of a civil case generally take the form of monetary compensation. And civil lawsuits have a lower burden of proof: rather than proving fault “beyond a reasonable doubt” as in a criminal case, plaintiffs must only prove a “preponderance of evidence”—that the defendant’s behavior more likely than not caused them harm. 

Personal injury claims span a wide variety of situations and can include slip-and-fall cases, car accidents, dog bites, medical malpractice, product liability, assault and battery, defamation, and sexual abuse. In every personal injury lawsuit, the plaintiff is fighting to receive compensation in the form of damages.

Image by Pixabay.

What are damages in a personal injury lawsuit?

The legal use of the word damages can be confusing—colloquially, when we talk about damage, we mean the harm done to something. Damages under the law, on the other hand, refers to a specific principle of civil cases.

In a lawsuit, damages refers to the compensation the plaintiff receives to make up for the defendant’s wrongdoing.

Damages are usually monetary. They are calculated to make up for the losses that the plaintiff suffered as a result of the defendant’s actions. In other words, if a plaintiff successfully proves that the defendant’s conduct caused them harm, the court or jury will award them compensation in the form of damages. 

How are damages determined?

The type and amount of damages paid will be determined by the civil court in charge of the case. In a jury trial, the jury will determine the award. The plaintiff can also opt for a judge-only trial (also called a “bench” trial). In a bench trial, the judge makes the final determination on damages. 

How damages are determined also depends on the types of losses suffered by the plaintiff. They may be economic or non-economic, and can compensate for harm and expenses suffered by the plaintiff or serve to punish the defendant for their wrongdoing. 

Types of damages: Compensatory and punitive

Compensatory damages

Compensatory damages are a type of monetary payment that the jury or judge awards to a plaintiff in order to compensate them for the harms or losses they’ve suffered due to the defendant’s conduct.  

These damages are designed to “make the plaintiff whole.” This means restoring the injured party to the position they would have been in—financially, physically, and emotionally—if the injury or harm hadn’t happened. This could include paying for medical bills and ongoing healthcare, covering increased costs of living, or compensating a plaintiff for pain and suffering.  

In many instances, money isn’t enough to truly make up for what a plaintiff has gone through. There is no way to erase the harm they’ve suffered, or truly return them to a time before the defendant’s actions. However, money can improve a plaintiff’s quality of life and help them afford medical bills or other expenses. While the system isn’t perfect, the law tasks the jury or judge to do their best to assign a value to what was taken from the injured person. 

Economic vs. non-economic compensatory damages in a personal injury case

Compensatory damages are divided into two categories: economic damages (which compensate for monetary losses) and non-economic or general damages (which compensate for non-monetary losses). 

Economic compensatory damages

Economic personal injury damages repay the plaintiff for financial losses they have experienced or are likely to experience as a result of the harm the defendant caused. 

Common economic damages include: 

  • Medical bills, both past and future 
  • Caretaking and household expenses while recovering 
  • The future expenses of living with a disability 
  • Loss of earnings or profits, including lost wages, now and in the future 
  • Property damage repair and replacement 

In most states, there is no limit on the amount of compensatory damages that can be awarded. The jury or judge will assess the plaintiff’s situation and determine a fair compensation.

Image by Pixabay.

Non-economic compensatory damages

Also called general damages, non-economic damages are harder to quantify but arguably even more important than economic damages. As people, we value our health—our ability to live without pain, distress, or disability; our ability to spend the time we have with our friends, family, and loved ones; our ability to take part in the things we enjoy. Pain and disability caused by harmful conduct can distract us and make it more difficult for us to live our lives. 

Non-economic damages help remedy what was taken from personal injury victims in terms of health, happiness, and human dignity. They recognize the human cost that individuals suffer when harmed through no fault of their own. 

Common general damages include: 

  • Physical pain and suffering, both past and future 
  • Scarring or disfigurement 
  • Disability 
  • Emotional distress 
  • Loss of reputation 
  • Loss of consortium 

Non-economic damages may also compensate a plaintiff for “loss of a normal life,” or their temporary or permanent diminished ability to enjoy their daily activities.  

Punitive damages

Compensatory damages are designed to make the injured person whole. Punitive damages, on the other hand, are an additional form of damages designed to punish the defendant. Also known as exemplary damages, they punish the defendant for particularly egregious conduct and attempt to deter others from engaging in similar behavior in the future. 

Courts may choose to award punitive damages in situations where the defendants display a willful disregard for the rights and safety of others, display a reckless disregard for human life, or have committed fraud. While this depends on the state, the limit helps avoid excessive punitive damages in court. 

Image by Pixabay.

Wrongful death and survival cases

Wrongful death claims and survival actions are two specific types of suits that can be brought under the umbrella of personal injury lawsuits. Both are brought by the surviving family members of someone who has passed and address the harm caused by the individual’s death. 

However, wrongful death and survival claims seek different types of damages. A wrongful death claim: 

  • Is brought by the surviving family members (usually the spouse, children, or next of kin). 
  • Seeks compensation for losses suffered by the family as a result of the individual’s death. 

On the other hand, a survival action: 

  • Is brought by the deceased person’s estate. 
  • Seeks compensation for losses suffered between when the individual was injured and when they died. 

While both address the harm caused by an individual’s death, the survival action allows the estate to pursue the legal claims that the person would have been entitled to if they were still alive. 

Economic damages in wrongful death cases often include: 

  • Funeral and burial costs 
  • Loss of future income 
  • Loss of services and benefits provided by the deceased (childcare, for example) 

Image by Pixabay.

Economic damages for survival claims are more similar to typical personal injury damages, and generally include injury-related medical bills. 

For many people, non-economic losses incurred when someone loses a family member or loved one are even more significant than economic losses. These general damages often account for the loss of the individual’s companionship, love, guidance, and moral support suffered by the surviving spouse, children, or next of kin. Many jurisdictions also allow plaintiffs to recover damages for grief, sorrow, and mental suffering. Survival claims operate in a similar fashion, but typically include the pain and suffering of the individual between when they were injured and when they passed. 

After the personal injury settlement

The process of a personal injury case can be complicated. After damages are awarded, there are still a few steps remaining before a plaintiff receives their money. 

After a jury verdict in favor of a plaintiff, the court may review the award to verify if the amount is excessive or deficient. Depending on its findings, the court may change the final amount to be awarded to the plaintiff.  

Image by Pixabay.

Understanding damage estimates

Experienced lawyers use a variety of information about a case to estimate what a potential settlement or court award may be worth. But ultimately, nobody can predict with 100 percent certainty what a personal injury case might be worth at the case’s outset. 

Settlement and award values are highly individualized and depend on the nature and extent of a plaintiff’s injuries. It’s important to hire an experienced personal injury attorney who can gather and present evidence that fully captures the plaintiff’s losses.  

Talk to a personal injury lawyer

Not sure how much your personal injury case could be worth? Our team of legal professionals and personal injury attorneys is available to talk through your situation and answer any questions you might have. Reach out to Wallace Miller at 331-205-7840 for a confidential and free consultation.

Left to right: Nicholas P. Kelly, Edward A. Wallace, Molly Condon Wells, Mark R. Miller, Jessica Wieczorkiewicz, Timothy E. Jackson.

Tell Us Your Story