FAQ: Damages in a Personal Injury Claim

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Most Common Personal Injury Law Issues:

What Are Damages in a Personal Injury Claim?

Most damages in a personal injury claim are compensatory damages. Compensatory damages are intended to compensate the injured plaintiff for losses caused by their injuries. These damages cover losses that are directly caused by the defendant’s conduct, such as: 

In many personal injury claims, “special damages” are also available. These are damages that are not directly caused by the defendant, but are still connected to the defendant’s conduct. Special damages can include: 

Finally, in some, more limited cases, punitive damages awards may be available. These are intended to “punish” the defendant for conduct involving malicious intent or a reckless disregard for the plaintiff’s safety. However, punitive damages are rarely available and usually only issued after a compensatory damage award.

Are There Any Maximum Limits for a Personal Injury Damages Award?

Generally, no. However, some states impose maximum limits, or “caps” for personal injury damages awards. This is particularly true for punitive damages, because, in essence, they are designed to “punish” the defendant and therefore seem almost “criminal” in nature, although they are not. 

Typically, if punitive damages are going to be limited, it will be something like two or three times the amount that the plaintiff receives in their compensatory damages award. Overall, damages in a personal injury claim must be reasonable and easily calculable.

Furthermore, some states place limits on medical malpractice awards.  Often times, the medical provider’s insurance will simply settle these lawsuits to avoid a costly legal battle, resulting in increased premiums and coverage for potentially innocent medical practitioners. Thus, these caps are intended to discourage filing a potentially frivolous lawsuit in the area of medical malpractice.

For example, if an otherwise frivolous claim could not collect more than $100,000 due to a cap, a dishonest claimant is in theory less likely to want to pay an attorney, who may have taken the case on a steep contingency fee, for a settlement that will undoubtedly be significantly less than the maximum amount allowed under the cap. Continuing the example, if the settlement is going to be $25,000, after costs and fees, that claim may only be worth a fraction of that.

How Do Prior Injuries Affect Damages Awards?

A prior injury or “pre-existing medical condition” will usually not disqualify a person from receiving damages in a personal injury claim. However the amount of the award can sometimes be reduced in proportion to the pre-existing injury.

For example, if the accident only served to aggravate a prior shoulder sprain, the court would take this into consideration when issuing the damages award. The damages award would not be completely eliminated, but will likely be reduced. It is worth nothing that pre-existing injuries will not keep a wrongful party from being held accountable, and that the injured party has a duty to disclose prior injuries during the personal injury lawsuit.

What Factors Are Considered When a Court Issues a Damages Award?

When calculating damages in a personal injury claim, the court will consider several factors. These factors typically include:

What Does “Mitigating Damages” Mean?

“Mitigating damages” refers to the injured party’s obligation to reduce damages.  For example, the plaintiff is usually advised to seek and receive medical treatment if necessary, and to avoid activities that might make the injuries worse.

The plaintiff usually does not have to go completely out of their way to mitigate damages, but must follow the normal, reasonable response to a personal injury.  For example, if they refuse to undergo a routine surgery for an injury, a court may order a reduction in their damages award.

Additionally, in some jurisdictions the plaintiff’s damages award may be reduced through a “comparative negligence” defense. This is where the plaintiff was negligent in some way and contributed to his or her own injury. For example, running a red light in a car accident. The applications of comparative fault and other defenses will vary by region.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

If you have any questions about damages in a personal injury claim, it would be wise to contact and hire a personal injury lawyer in your area. A qualified attorney can assist you in answering legal questions, filing a lawsuit in court, and obtaining the damages award you are entitled to.

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Last Modified: 04-29-2014 03:16 PM PDT

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