What are the Types of Damages in a Lawsuit?

Damages in Personal Injury and Contract Lawsuits

Types of Damages in Lawsuits

Chris Ryan/Getty Images 

What is the Purpose of Damages?

The original concept of damages, continuing to today, is to make someone whole if they have been damaged by someone else. For example, let's say your car is damaged and you have been injured because someone hit you in traffic. You start and win a lawsuit and are awarded damages. Those damages are supposed to pay you to restore the car to its previous value and to pay your medical bills as a result of the injury.

In addition, to make you whole, it might be necessary to pay you for lost earnings while you were recovering, or if you couldn't run your business and you lost income.

In more recent years, the original concept of damages has been expanded to include less precise concepts of "making whole" and have been expanded to other concepts. Included in damages now are things like "pain and suffering" and "punitive damages." These types of damages are more difficult to define and put a dollar value on.

Basic Types of Damages

Damages come in three different types:

  • Special compensatory damages, for financial losses that can be calculated, like medical bills or loss of earnings.
  • General damages, for losses that are more difficult to calculate, like mental anguish or pain and suffering.
  • Punitive damages, intended to punish someone who has injured someone intentionally or through reckless actions. Sometimes punitive damages are awarded to serve as a public example. For example, punitive damages might be set for a doctor who operated under the influence of alcohol.

    Damage Types in Personal Injury Cases

    Some types of damages are those intended to compensate someone who has suffered a personal injury because of the negligence of someone else. Personal injury lawsuits are civil cases brought by one individual against another person or business. These damages include:

    • Loss of earnings or loss of future earnings
    • Medical bills
    • Cost of future medical care
    • Household expenses, because the injured party was not able to care for the house (not able to do the cleaning, for example) and
    • Costs associated with canceled trips or altered plans.

    Other damages in personal injury cases are a little more difficult to calculate. They include:

    • Pain and suffering,
    • Personal enjoyment,
    • Mental anguish, and
    • Loss of consortium or companionship  

    Damages in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit

    A wrongful death legal action is a special type of lawsuit that is brought by loved ones of someone who dies because of the negligent, reckless, or deliberate action of someone. The classic wrongful death lawsuit was the one brought by the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman against O.J. Simpson.

    According to Julie Garber, Estate Planning expert, damages in these lawsuits can include:

    • Medical bills and burial expenses
      Compensatory damages for lost wages their loved one would have earned had he lived to his normal life expectancy
    • Compensatory damages for the pain and suffering endured by the surviving family members due to their loved one's absence
    • Punitive damages that are intended to punish the person who caused the death.

    Not all states allow for punitive damages for wrongful death lawsuits.

    Damage Types in Business Contract Lawsuits

    In a contract dispute, one party often claims that the other party breached (didn't comply with) the contract. For example, a company might claim that a contractor didn't finish a project on time or didn't do the work required.

    In this type of lawsuit, the damages are intended to bring the injured party up to the economic position that was expected from the success of the contract. In the example above, damages could be set based on the profits the company would gain from the project if it had been successful.

    Sometimes the damages are set based on the economic position of the injured party before the contract was breached.

    Some other typical damages might include:

    • Compensatory damages - payment as agreed in the original contract
    • Restitution - paying the other party back for payments or deposits made
    • Liquidated damages - Agreed-upon damages that were set in the original contract
    • Punitive damages, if the court finds that the actions were intentional or morally reprehensible
    • Minimal damages. If the court finds that the plaintiff was damaged, but the damage was very small, minimal damages might be awarded. This is the $1 payment you might have heard about.
    • Other remedies for breach of contract might include:

      Specific performance, when the party is required to do what was promised, like selling the painting or finishing the project.

      Damages in Tort Reform

      Tort reform is a movement in the U.S. to limit costs of lawsuits. One important part of tort reform is the limitation on damages like pain and suffering and punitive damages. Both federal and state laws have been enacted to put caps on damages for medical malpractice, class action lawsuits, and product liability.

      Who Sets the Damages?

      If the case is heard in a criminal court, there are specific sentencing guidelines set by the court. In civil cases, the plaintiff may ask for different kinds of damages.