How Much Can I Seek in Damages?
Reviewed by Carina Jenkins, J.D.
No sum of money may ever fully undo the damage done if another person's negligence or misconduct injures you. However, getting money from a lawsuit can help your recovery and make life easier.
The amount of money or damages you can get depends on the type of case and injuries. An attorney can help you decide how much you should seek in your particular personal injury case, but here’s a quick guide.
Generally, there are a few main categories of damages in most lawsuits:
- Actual and economic damages
- General compensatory damages for things like pain and suffering
- Punitive damages
Definitions can vary by jurisdiction, so you may want to look up the terminology for the state or federal court handling your lawsuit.
Actual damages are often the easiest type to understand and calculate. This money compensates you for specific monetary losses. For example, in a personal injury lawsuit after a car accident, economic damages might include:
- The cost to repair or replace your car
- The cost of a rental car
- Medical bills
- Lost wages due to time you were unable to work
Actual damages involve a tangible loss you can prove with bills or other documents. You can calculate these damages by adding up all expenses related to a particular loss or injury.
You can seek compensation for losses that may not have happened yet, such as medication, physical therapy or other medical care that you will need in the future. Economic damages can also include future lost wages if your ability to work is likely to suffer a long-term impact due to the injury.
Calculating future economic damages can be challenging. For example, you may need a doctor to provide information on what future medical treatment you're likely to need. If you think you won't be able to work again after an accident, you can add up all the paychecks you will miss. However, having an expert offer an opinion on your loss of potential raises or investments can be advantageous.
Occasionally, another person's wrongdoing may have caused little or no economic loss. You may still be entitled to pursue damages if their actions violated certain laws or caused you emotional distress. In these cases, the court may award a very small award called nominal damages. This may be as little as a dollar. You can then pursue more in other kinds of damages. Courts sometimes award nominal damages in lawsuits for harassment or civil rights violations.
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General compensatory damages are intended to compensate you for things such as:
- Pain and suffering
- Loss of consortium
- Emotional distress
- Loss of enjoyment of life
There are two methods for calculating damages for pain and suffering. The first is the multiplier method. This method takes the total economic damages and multiplies them by a number, often between zero and five, to come up with an amount for pain and suffering. The multiplier is based on the severity of pain and suffering. The multiplier might be two for a minor accident that caused pain but no permanent damage. The court might use a higher multiplier for injuries that caused permanent pain or disfigurement.
Another method is called the "per diem" method. This method sets a dollar amount for pain and suffering per day and then multiplies it by the number of days you suffered pain. The per diem method is less common and can be unsuitable for severe long-term injuries.
Other methods are used for calculating damages for things like emotional distress and loss of consortium. Damages for things like emotional distress may be available even when there were no actual economic damages. There aren't always clear rules or formulas for determining these amounts, and speaking with an experienced lawyer is usually a good idea.
The law occasionally allows you to seek punitive damages, which are intended to punish defendants for malfeasance and deter others from committing the same acts. Punitive damages aren't available in all cases.
Laws make treble damages available for certain cases. Treble damages are generally a form of punitive damages, and these laws allow you to seek three times the amount of your actual loss. For example, a state law might say that if your employer wrongfully withholds your paycheck, the employer owes you punitive damages equal to three times the withheld pay.
However, calculating punitive damages isn't always so easy. Sometimes, there's no clear definition of what punitive damages should be. Courts may consider to what degree the defendant's conduct was malicious and how much money was awarded in similar cases.
There can be a cap on how much you can seek in damages, and the maximum amount depends on the case type and location. The United States Supreme Court has held that, in most cases, there should be limits on punitive damages. The Court has suggested that punitive damages should rarely exceed nine times the other damages in a case.
States have also placed limits on punitive damages and damages for pain and suffering. For example, California caps damages for pain and suffering in medical malpractice cases at $250,000.
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