• Personal Injury Damages Part One: Compensatory Damages

    Personal Injury Damages Part One: Compensatory Damages

    Damages are the monetary relief that a plaintiff receives for injuries caused by the defendant. They are the goal of any personal injury lawsuit, and at the very core of the suit. Damages come in two large categories, compensatory damages and punitive damages. Compensatory damages are provided to a plaintiff and represent the actual losses proximately caused by the defendant. Punitive damages do not represent actual losses and serve as a punishment for bad behavior and as a deterrent for future bad behavior. Punitive damages are not limited by the plaintiff’s losses, are often astronomical, and are just as frequently the subject of controversy. This article will focus on compensatory damages.

    Plaintiff’s are generally on able to recover damages if they have suffered some form of injury. In a case where the defendant’s conduct was intentional, such as battery or assault, the very act is considered injurious and the plaintiff is usually entitled to at least a nominal amount of damages. In cases of negligence a plaintiff is required to prove actual harm in order to recover damages. An actual harm is a tangible or appreciable loss. Tangible losses include such things as physical injury, lost wages, and pain and suffering. Unless stated otherwise by statute, attorneys fees are generally not recoverable against defendant.

    Compensatory damages are designed to compensate plaintiff’s for legally recognized injuries. Compensatory damages come in three categories. The first category is compensation for lost time. This category includes such losses as lost wages or earning capacity. The second category is compensation for the expenses flowing from the injury. This category includes such losses as medical expenses. The third category is compensation for pain and suffering. This category includes such losses as mental aguish and emotional distress. The amount awarded is generally reflective of all past and future damages. There are, however, certain limitations or adjustments that can be placed on an award depending on the circumstance.

    A in injured plaintiff may recover for the value of the time lost to the injury. If a plaintiff’s injuries render them unable to work then they are typically entitled to recover for their lost wages. This amount typically includes the value of any lost benefits such as health insurance. The value of the lost earnings may also include a valuation of any reasonably expected increase in wages, such as through a promotion. If the plaintiff was not earning a wage or salary, they may still recover under a theory of lost earning capacity. Under this theory a person recovers the opportunity cost of the loss, or in other circumstances they may be rewarded the economic value they provided as a homemaker or other extra-market persons, or as an unpaid employee of a family business.

    A plaintiff may also recover damages for medical and other expenses. The plaintiff is entitled to recover the reasonable value of medical expenses that accrued from the defendant’s tortious act. This includes expenses that have already been accrued and expenses that are predicted to accrue in the future. All kinds of medical expenses are recoverable including, but not limited to the costs of drugs, operations, diagnostics and other tests, monitoring, prosthesis, and ongoing medical treatments. While the most common kind of recovery is for medical expenses, any other expenses that are a direct result of the defendant’s conduct are also recoverable (aside from attorneys fees).

    Compensatory damages are generally awarded as a lump sum and so reflect an estimation of the reasonable value of the services reasonably required as a result of the injury. The reasonable value of medical services does not depend on the actual price paid by the plaintiff. Instead, the reasonable value is reflective of the market price for the required services. While the actual price paid for the services can be used as proof of the market rate it is not dispositive of the issue. As a result of this general rule the award of medical expenses is frequently contested by defendants.

    The last category is compensatory damages for pain and suffering. A plaintiff may recover for many different types of pain, from the actual physical pain of an injury to more remote emotional injuries like loss of enjoyment. Claims of pain and suffering are easier to prove when the plaintiff suffers from serious physical injuries like permanent disfigurement, loss of limbs, or the loss of senses or bodily functions. It is also easier to make out claims of emotional anguish in these instances. Juries are typically responsible for determining the value of pain and suffering, and they are prone to render large verdicts. As a result of this tendency defendants will frequently fight claims of emotional distress with tremendous vigor.

    Compensatory damages may be adjusted for various factors– usually downwards. A common adjustment is a reduction for the plaintiff’s own failure to mitigate damages. In other words, if the plaintiff reasonably could have acted to avoid particular consequences then their recovery will be reduced by what harm could have been avoided. Another adjustment is a limitation on the period that the plaintiff is expected to suffer. A plaintiff will not recover for a lifetime of pain if the pain is unlikely to last for a lifetime. Similarly, a plaintiff’s pain will last for the remainder of their life, then their reasonable life expectancy will determine the award.

    In some jurisdictions there is also an adjustment for the time-value of money. Compensatory damages are calculate to include future losses, so any present award is actually overcompensating for the plaintiff’s current losses. It is thought to be overcompensating because the lump sum can be invested and a large return can be realized, thus the actual award over time is much larger than the actual damages suffered. The time-value adjustment reduces the award to the present value of the harm. The future losses are compensated for through investments and the payment of interest on the current lump sum.
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