Understanding civil damages could make the hard work of filing a civil lawsuit more rewarding. The size of your award or settlement is not strictly limited to out-of-pocket monetary expenses.
Since ancient times, legal traditions have forced wrongdoers to compensate their victims in some material way. Modern civil law continues this tradition. It attempts to remedy the financial harm and losses caused by one person to another.
“Damages” is the legal term for the amount of money a court orders a defendant to pay when found liable for the plaintiff’s negative experience. These liabilities could stem from suffering, breaches of contract, and sometimes outrage at someone who ignored the law.
When preparing a legal claim, you’ll want to be very specific about the harm the defendant has caused you and the types of damages you can reasonably seek under the law.
A Big Picture View of Damages
Civil law has created six categories of damages. They are:
- Compensatory – This category represents the measurable value of the harm caused by the defendant. Medical bills from a car accident, lost profits from a breach of contract, and destroyed or unusable property are examples that can produce compensatory damages because they generally have clear dollar values.
- Consequential – As the name suggests, these damages are attributed to the costs suffered by the plaintiff that are a consequence of the defendant’s action or inaction.
- Incidental – This category differs from consequential damages because they arise from things you need to do to prevent or control for additional losses.
- Liquidated – If your legal dispute involves a written contract, it may refer to liquidated damages. These damages would be stated within the contract.
- Nominal – An award of nominal damages is usually very low, as little as $1. It serves as a placeholder for compensatory damages when you either suffered no financial loss or are unable to place a value on it. However, nominal damages can be important because they affirm that the defendant is liable. Nominal damages can also pave the way for an award of punitive damages.
- Punitive – These damages are intended to punish a defendant for shocking negligence or serious misdeeds.
Damages in Real-Life Scenarios
Consider someone who was badly injured by a drunk driver in a motor vehicle accident. Obviously, the victim will pursue compensatory damages to pay for medical treatment. Punitive damages could also be possible against an intoxicated driver with a criminal history of prior DUI convictions. A judge might want to punish such a driver because the person had to have known the illegality and potential harmfulness of intoxicated driving.
Consequential damages are most easily illustrated by mistakes in the home service industry. A plumber might make a mistake when replacing a toilet for a homeowner. The incorrect installation results in a leak that forces the homeowner to pay to fix ruined drywall and flooring. These consequential damages would be represented by a fee the homeowner paid the plumber for the original work. They could be added to the compensatory damages.
Occasionally, a sexual harassment case or workplace discrimination case results in an award of nominal damages and punitive damages. The damages could be nominal if the person lost no income but files the lawsuit because the employer allowed illegal harassment to occur. Although the plaintiff would be unable to show a loss of value, the nominal award would establish the defendant’s liability and could inspire a judge to apply punitive damages.
Liquidated and incidental damages often appear in cases involving disputes with construction contractors. A contract with your builder typically spells out the liquidated damages due to you when the work is not finished on time. The contract could require liquidated damages in the amount of $1,000 paid to you for each day the project goes past the deadline.
A construction dispute or failure that forces you to find another contractor could position you to demand incidental damages in your complaint. The expense of hiring another contractor to finish the job would be incidental damages.
Assignment of Damages
It’s important to assert your damage claims within the correct categories, especially as a self-represented litigant. As stated above, compensatory damages replace losses that have identifiable values and are the direct result of the defendant’s negligence. They include bills from:
- Ambulance services
- Inpatient and outpatient medical treatments
- Physical therapy and rehabilitation
- Increased living expenses
- Transportation to appointments
- In-home care
- Property replacement
- Lost income or business
Beyond these tangible expenses, dozens of costs could qualify for the remaining categories, especially consequential and incidental damages. Some examples are:
- Mental anguish
- Long-term disability
- Chronic pain
- Reduced quality of life
- Lost future income
- Loss of professional reputation
- Pain and suffering
- Legal expenses
You may also request punitive damages when the defendant has behaved so inappropriately that punishment is appropriate. The manner in which punitive damages are calculated differs in each state.
Be careful not to rush through calculating your damages because there may be amounts due to you that are not found in your pile of bills. Take your time to fully consider every angle of your case so you can collect the highest amount of damages allowable under the law.
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