If you've been injured or suffered a loss that is the fault of someone else, whether to file a civil lawsuit or not is a big decision. Obviously, consulting with an attorney is something you should give priority. But, before taking that step, you'll want to do a little research and learn the basics of lawsuits. One of the first things to learn is the different types of damages, usually in the form of money awarded in civil cases.
Compensatory and punitive damages are the two basic types of awards you could seek in a civil lawsuit. While punitive damages may be more exciting in a made-for-TV way, this article will concentrate entirely on compensatory damages. By knowing what they are, you'll have a better understanding of what to expect from a potential lawsuit and be able to talk with your attorney more intelligently.
What Are Compensatory Damages?
The definition of compensatory damages is an award of money in compensation for actual economic loss, property damage, or injury. Again, compensatory damages are separate from punitive damages in a civil lawsuit. Compensatory damages are broken down further into the following two categories.
Special (or Actual) Damages
This is an award designed to reimburse the injured party for expenses related to property damages, medical costs, and loss of income. The award will be in the amount of actual losses. For example, a car totaled in an accident would be valued at its retail price minus any depreciation. This award is designed to replace real losses to return the injured party to the financial condition they were in before the loss took place.
These may be awarded for personal harm suffered by the injured party including pain and suffering, mental anguish, loss of consortium, and lost opportunity for the future enjoyment of life. Due to the often difficult circumstances involved in these awards, the court will use outcomes of similar prior cases to determine amounts awarded.
Types of Compensatory Damages
Now that we've defined the major types of compensatory damages, we'll break down the specifics of each condition in which they may be applied.
When you are injured, you could be left with some costly medical bills. As part of a civil lawsuit, your medical expenses could be a large percentage of the damages to which you're entitled. The greater the amount of money owed for medical services, the greater the amount of damages the lawsuit will pursue.
There could be damages after initial treatment, in the form of long-term care, to be factored in. Examples of medical expenses include:
As you can see, the list of potential medical expenses is long. Medical bills can be presented as evidence of initial care costs while your attorney can find experts to assist in determining potential long-term care needs.
The injured party may also seek compensation for the repair or replacement of any property damaged in an accident. In an automobile accident, for example, not only is damage to the car recoverable, but lost or damaged property inside the car (tools, golf clubs, child seat, etc.) may also be eligible for compensation. Cost of a rental car or other alternate means of transportation may also be eligible while repairs are being completed.
Valuing damaged property may require an appraiser, whose job it is to determine the extent of the property damage. If the property is not salvageable, the victim can seek compensation in the amount of its value before the accident. If repairs can be made, the loss of use by the injured party, besides the repair itself, becomes part of the total damages.
Another factor in total costs could be interest and loss of profit. For example, if the injured party loses business equipment or tools used in their employment, these are damages that could be added to a lawsuit.
Loss of Income
If there is an injury, and it prevents the injured party from working or running their business, damages may apply in the amount normally earned during the recovery period. This is known as lost wages. Time missed from work due to a doctor's appointments, physical or occupational therapy or other related treatments of the injury would also be considered as lost wages.
A permanent injury that prevents the injured party from working for the rest of their life may also be eligible for compensation to cover the loss of future earnings. Finally, if a person dies due to an accident, the deceased party's family can bring a civil lawsuit for the lost income that the victim would have earned based on their age and current salary.
A younger person has a longer work-life expectancy and would suffer a substantial loss of future earnings in the event of untimely death compared to an older person.
Pain and Suffering
The amount of pain and suffering an injured party goes through is difficult to assess. Everyone's pain threshold is different, but there are ways to measure and document the injured party’s level of suffering.
Information can be collected from medical records and providers concerning the amount of medication the injured party required, the kinds and duration of treatments needed, and the expected length of the recovery period. Family members and friends of the injured party can be interviewed to find out if the accident caused any effect on the victim’s quality or enjoyment of life.
Pain and Mental Anguish and Emotional Distress Suffering
Different from pain and suffering, the effects of these mental conditions include terror, shock, apprehension, confusion, humiliation, and sorrow. Some states make it difficult to prove with strict guidelines such as the “zone of danger” test which considers how physically close the injured party was to the accident.
Another limit is the “physical manifestation rule” which requires that the emotional distress experienced by the injured party be exhibited by physical conditions such as depression and anxiety intense enough to cause ulcers or loss of appetite and weight. Proving these conditions is difficult and requires expert guidance.
Loss of Consortium
This is another type of compensatory damages available in the case of a permanently disabling injury. Loss of consortium is the inability of the injured party to engage in acts of companionship with their spouse or loved one at the level they once did. Damages awarded tend to be less but can still be significant in a case involving a permanent outcome such as paraplegia.
These compensatory damages are sometimes recoverable in addition to lost wages and loss of future earnings. They refer to a business opportunity of the injured party that has been impeded due to an accident. A claim of this type must be supported entirely. Failure to do so could damage the merits of the entire case and cause a judge or jury to reject other damages sought by the injured party.
When Are Compensatory Damages Awarded?
Compensatory damages are awarded in civil court cases where the injured party's loss has occurred as a result of the negligence or unlawful conduct of another party. For compensatory damages to be awarded, a judge or jury must be able to determine the actual monetary value of the loss suffered by the injured party. Some examples include:
Examples of Lawsuits Involving Compensatory Damages
Here are a few examples of real-life lawsuits that resulted in compensatory damages being awarded:
1. $80 Million Verdict Reached in Medical Malpractice Suit
A defective medical stapler almost cost a retired police officer her life. She went into the hospital for routine hemorrhoid surgery, but the surgeon used a defective stapler. The damage caused her bowels to rupture. She went into sepsis and shock. She eventually recovered, then took the stapler manufacturers to court and netted a verdict of $80 million.
2. Lawsuit Over Toxic Water
An Ohio woman successfully sued a Teflon company after her attorney proved that they knew that their products contaminated local water. She was awarded $1.6 million in damages, and her case was followed by more than 3,000 others claiming that their water was affected too.
3. Fast-Food Hot Coffee Lawsuit
A jury awarded a woman $200,000 in compensatory damages to pay for medical bills and other related expenses due to being burned by a cup of hot coffee purchased through the drive-in window at a fast-food chain. Because the company had prior knowledge that their coffee could cause serious injury, yet did nothing to remedy the situation, the jury also awarded the woman over $2 million in punitive damages.
As you can see, there's a lot to learn about the world of civil litigation. Seeking the guidance of an experienced personal injury attorney should be one of the first things you do in case of an injury or loss that's the fault of another. It's also helpful to educate yourself to be of help to your attorney and to know you're getting sound legal advice.
Knowing the ins and outs of topics like compensatory damages will only help you be a better plaintiff. Your legal team will appreciate it, and it will increase your chances of achieving the outcome you desire. Arming yourself with a basic knowledge of your rights under the law is the first step to a successful civil lawsuit.
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