The Two Different Types of Compensatory Damages

Written by Christi Hayes and Fact Checked by The Law Dictionary Staff  

Damages are extremely common in personal injury lawsuits. Many people tend to think of damages in terms of compensatory damages, which literally compensate the plaintiff for the loss she or he has incurred, and punitive damages, which are designed to punish the defendant for his or her behavior. What some people may not be aware of, however, is that compensatory damages themselves are also divided into two different categories: special damages and general damages. Understanding these two types of damages is essential for understanding how courts compensate plaintiffs for losses they have suffered.

Special Damages

Special damages are the more straightforward side of compensatory damages. Essentially, special damages are those damages that are easily calculable. They often have a firm dollar figure attached to them that are not really up for debate. Medical bills, for example, count as special damages since they provide firm evidence of the dollar amount that would need to be compensated by the defendant if the plaintiff was successful in his or her case. Other easily calculable expenses that are classified as special damages include lost income due to time that had to be taken off work, property loss and damage, and out-of-pocket expenses related to the incident that is at the center of the litigation. Basically, special damages are those that can easily and quickly be calculated without too much debate.

General Damages

In contrast to special damages, general damages tend to be much more subjective and difficult to pin down. General damages include items like pain and suffering, mental illness, anxiety, and emotional distress that are related to the injury in question. After all, a serious car accident doesn't just leave a victim with physical injuries, but also, in many cases, causes emotional distress, such as frequent nightmares, traumatic symptoms, and anxiety. Quantifying these items is obviously much more difficult than quantifying special damages. Some courts use the "multiplier method," which calculates general damages by multiplying the sum total of one's special damages by a number that is dependent on the seriousness of one's injuries. In other cases, courts will use the "per diem" method, which attaches a dollar value to each day that the plaintiff suffered because of the accident and then adds the value of all those days together. In some cases, court will use a mix of the multiplier method and the per diem method. Regardless, in most instances general damages are usually higher for those who have suffered more serious injuries and lower for injuries that may be considered relatively minor.

Compensating injury victims is an important part of personal injury law and is something that civil courts grapple with throughout the country. While specific damages are clearly fairly straightforward, general damages routinely challenge courts to come up with a dollar figure for something that is highly subjective in value. Determining what is an appropriate amount of compensation for injury victims continues to stir up quite a bit of debate, not just among legal experts themselves, but in the media and throughout society.

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