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Personal Injury Cases: A Guide to Damages and Settlements

Woman bicyclist on the ground after an accident involving a personal injury case

Civil complaints and lawsuits for personal injuries crowd the dockets of courtrooms across the United States. Law firms specializing in personal injury cases are part of a billion-dollar industry, helping individuals reclaim their lives after all types of injuries.

Like the people involved, every personal injury settlement is unique, so it’s impossible to accurately estimate how much the “average” case is worth. The value of a personal injury case depends on a combination of many factors.

Recoverable Damages in Personal Injury Cases

The laws related to personal injury damages vary from state to state. In general, plaintiffs in these types of cases can recover some or all of the following kinds of damages.

Special Damages in Injury Cases

The category of personal injury damages called “special” damages refers to quantifiable, concrete expenses that a person has incurred or expects to incur in the future. These damages include many different types of expenditures, including:

  • Medical bills. Emergency treatment, ongoing care, physical therapy, rehabilitation, anticipated future medical treatment, pain management, mental health treatment, and any other completed or necessary care
  • Property damage. Damage to vehicles and their contents, personal property, clothing, electronics, packages, structures, residences, and anything else damaged in the occurrence
  • Lost wages. Compensation for lost pay, reduction in or loss of earning ability, discharge, loss of bonuses or advancement, and any other loss of income as a result of the injury or occurrence
  • Other expenses. costs of additional childcare or household help, transportation expenses, medical devices, accessibility expenses, and any other additional costs

Special damages are one aspect of “compensatory” damages in personal injury cases. Compensatory damages are meant to “make a plaintiff whole” after suffering losses for which a defendant is legally at fault. However, they are not necessarily calculated by how much a plaintiff paid out of pocket.

For example, a person misses five days of work due to injuries from an accident. Because they use accumulated sick time, they do not lose any pay. However, they can claim five days of lost work as a component of their special damages.

In addition to these common categories of special damages, many other quantifiable losses may be recoverable as part of a special damages package. For example, a plaintiff could claim the cost of repairing a tattoo damaged in a car accident as part of their special damages package.

People often don’t appreciate how far-reaching the effects of an accident or injury can be. As a result, they may significantly underestimate how much their claim could be worth. A personal injury attorney can evaluate your case from a more experienced perspective and ensure you claim all of the special damages to which you are legally entitled.

General Damages in Personal Injury Cases

It’s relatively easy to assign a specific dollar value to an injury victim’s special damages using the actual cost, replacement cost, or accepted valuation metrics like insurance tables. General damages, on the other hand, are injuries that don’t have a set price tag. They include compensation for categories like:

  • Pain and suffering
  • Loss of consortium (marital companionship)
  • Mental anguish
  • Emotional distress

Since general damages are more difficult to quantify, plaintiffs often substantiate these claims using their testimony and experts’ opinions. General damages awards can be significant, especially in cases involving egregious behavior or young victims that sustain life-altering injuries.

Punitive Damages in Injury Cases

Some states also allow injury victims to seek punitive damages in personal injury cases. Punitive damages are intended to punish an individual or company for gross negligence, recklessness, or intentional bad behavior. They’re often limited by statute to specific instances of wrongdoing, such as drunk driving, “dram shop” liability (for third-party liquor sales or provision), and other threats to public safety.

Resolving Your Case: Settle or Litigate?

Litigating a civil case before a judge or jury is very expensive and time-consuming; it often takes years to progress through the court system, and appeals could further delay any verdict. Thus, the vast majority of injury cases settle before they go to trial.

Typically, a plaintiff’s attorney makes a settlement demand to the attorneys for the individuals or entities they believe are responsible for the plaintiff’s injuries. This usually occurs during the “discovery” process after the parties have exchanged documents and information. Like other negotiations, each party tends to start the bidding at the outer limits of what they would be willing to offer or accept.

Most cases are resolved using either informal settlement negotiation tactics or formal alternative dispute resolution mechanisms (like mediation or arbitration). In most cases, the plaintiff signs an enforceable release of all claims they may have against the defendant(s) in exchange for a settlement award. Often, these agreements are confidential.

Structuring Personal Injury Settlements

Negotiating a settlement can seem impossible for personal injury cases with significant damage claims or severe, long-lasting injuries. One way to help the parties reach an agreement is to use a structured settlement, where the defendant purchases an annuity (a long-term investment vehicle that pays regular dividends) and assigns the rights to the payments to the plaintiff. The amount the defendant pays for the annuity costs less now (in present-day dollars) than the value of the future payments the plaintiff will receive.

A structured settlement can also be one component of a larger, more complex settlement package. Other aspects may include:

  • A negotiated reduction of medical expenses and liens with the providers directly.
  • A lump-sum settlement payment to cover expenses and bills that have already accrued.
  • Plaintiff’s attorney’s fees and costs.

A blended agreement can overcome one of the most common objections to a structured settlement because it provides a plaintiff with both immediate compensation and long-term financial security.

What Is My Case Worth?

Don’t try to DIY your personal injury case; if you’ve been injured and believe someone else is at fault, call a professional. An experienced personal injury attorney will evaluate what your case may be worth and help you understand your options. Get started with a free, no-obligation review of your case today.

Contact a Personal Injury Attorney Now

Find out how much your case is worth in minutes.


This article contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. The Law Dictionary is not a law firm, and this page does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

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