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The basic definition of compensatory damages is of the monetary damages awarded a plaintiff in a lawsuit for the loss he or she has suffered because of the actions of the defendant. What many may not realize, however, is that there are two types of compensatory damages: actual damages (sometimes called “special damages”) and general damages. Knowing the differences between the two is essential in understanding how courts compensate plaintiffs for the injuries they’ve suffered.

In addition to compensatory damages, courts sometimes award punitive damages, which will be discussed later. First, it’s critical to understand the two types of compensatory damages.

Actual (or Special) Compensatory Damages

Actual damages are the more straightforward and easily understood side of compensatory damages, as these usually have a firm dollar amount attached to them. Some of the more common types of actual damages include:

  • Medical and hospital bills
  • Medical treatment
  • Rehabilitation and physical therapy expenses
  • Ambulance services
  • Medicine and prescription drugs
  • Nursing home care
  • Domestic services
  • Loss of earnings, current and future
  • Increased living expenses
  • Property replacement or repair
  • Transportation

General Compensatory Damages

These damages, in contrast, tend to be more subjective and more difficult to quantify as they include estimates of loss from damages not immediately visible and not involving actual monetary expenditures. They are called general damages as they involve injuries that are typically( or “generally”) sustained in an accident. All personal injury victims are expected to have at least some general injuries.

Common general damages include:

  • Pain and suffering – The permanent physical distress caused by, but not limited to, scarring, chronic pain and limited activity.
  • Emotional distress – Anxiety, depression and other emotional struggles resulting from the injury.
  • Disfigurement – A permanent change in appearance, such as scarring or amputation as a result of the injury.
  • Loss of consortium – The inability for relationships with family and spouses to continue as they were before the injury.
  • Loss of physical or mental capacity – The inability to care for oneself as they did before the injury.
  • Loss of enjoyment of life – The inability to enjoy and participate in activities one engaged in before the injury.

Calculating Compensatory Damages

Actual damages are calculated by totaling the expenses incurred by the plaintiff as a result of the injury they have suffered, making the maintenance of accurate and complete records imperative. If the plaintiff has done this, these damages should not be open to debate as counsel can easily prove the costs the plaintiff has experienced.

Calculating general damages is obviously more difficult than quantifying actual damages, and in determining an amount to be awarded the plaintiff, some courts use what is called the “multiplier method.” This approach determines general damages by multiplying the total cost of the actual damages by a number that the court feels corresponds to the seriousness of the injuries suffered by the plaintiff. The more serious the injuries, in the opinion of the court, the higher the multiplier.

Another means of determining general damages is the “per diem” method. Using this metric, the court determines a dollar value or amount for each day the plaintiff has suffered because of the accident and then adds the value of all these days together to determine the general compensatory damages.

Finally, in some cases, the court will use a mix of the multiplier and per diem methods. Whatever means the court uses, the rule of thumb is that the more serious the injury, the higher the general damages will be. If, for example, someone is out of work for an extended period of time because of a car accident, the general damages would be greater than if they were involved in a less serious mishap.

Punitive Damages

In civil litigation, courts sometimes impose punitive damages that go above and beyond the actual and general compensatory damages, which must then be paid to the plaintiff by the defendant. Punitive damages are meant to punish the defendant for his or her reckless or negligent behavior, hopefully discouraging them from engaging in similar actions in the future.

In addition, punitive damages serve as a message to society at large, warning others that such behavior will not be tolerated and can lead to serious monetary consequences.

If you have been injured in an accident and believe you are entitled to compensatory damages, you’ll want to find an attorney who will listen to your concerns with genuine interest and compassion, as well as explain the details of your claim in a way that you can understand. You will also need a highly experienced attorney whose knowledge of the law will help you get the damages you deserve.