The purpose of personal injury claims and lawsuits is to both hold someone responsible for damages to someone else caused by negligence, and to make that someone pay for those damages.   Negligence claims need to prove each of those elements in order to succeed; negligence, damages and causation.  If they are proven to the trier of the law then what remains is a determination of damages, how much are the elements of the damage worth in monetary terms?

We cannot go back in time and undo an act of negligence that might have caused injury to someone, we can only offer an equitable solution by way of civil litigation.  Once a negligence claim is determined to be valid, the court must then award an amount of money to fairly, in the eyes of the law, compensate the wronged party for their damages they suffered.

There are two types of damage awards; compensatory and punitive.  As a matter of public policy, the court must evaluate the behavior of the negligent party and financially punish them in a way that makes sense, taking into account the entire circumstances and mitigating factors of the negligent act or omission and the repercussions of that negligence.

Compensatory Damages

Cases that involve ordinary negligence, or ‘accidents’ most likely will be treated with an award of compensatory damages.  Compensatory damages would be an amount to make the injured party whole or as whole as possible, given the nature of the injuries.  Someone who loses a leg in a car accident, for example, cannot be given their leg back, however, the court may award enough money for a prosthetic limb and significant rehabilitation and other calculable damages.

Compensatory damages come in the form of payment for economic damages as well as non-economic damages.  Economic damages are losses that involve money; medical bills, income loss, property loss, essential service requirements, legal fees and other losses where money is spent or lost only because of the injuries resulting from the negligence.   Non-economic losses are more intangible, therefore, more difficult to determine.  Non-economic damages include emotional distress, pain, discomfort and suffering from the injuries sustained as well as any physical impairment and/or visible scarring.  Compensation may also be considered for inability to enjoy one’s hobby as before, or even the inability to act as ‘husband and wife’ due to injuries sustained by negligence.

Compensatory awards are the more common type of awards as the civil courts are generally thought to be the ‘courts of equity’.  Compensatory damages are more conservative in nature and not used to punish the negligent party as the act or omission was determined to be ordinary in nature.  For someone who is experiencing chronic pain from a negligent act, compensatory damages may seem to fall short of the mark from their prospective.  Judges and juries rarely offer further damage awards unless there are findings of a more serious negligence.

Punitive Damages

There are times when the negligence of a person rises to the category of gross carelessness or willful and wanton behavior.  It is for these more serious acts or omissions that punitive damages are considered and possibly awarded.


These are damages that can be awarded to an injured person in addition to any compensatory damage award.   Punitive damages are meant as a punishment.  The liable party is meant to ‘feel’ the loss of money as a real and lasting act of retribution propagated by the court system.  The facts of the case must demonstrate that there was willful disregard for the safety of the injured party and maybe the safety of others.

Punitive damages also are meant to send a message to the public at large.  The size of the award is in many instances equal to the disdain the court holds for that type of negligence the liable party was found responsible for.  Public safety may be at issue and others who might be engaging in, or likely to engage in, the same negligent behavior are put on notice that the courts do not approve of those actions and the courts will punish those who engage in them.

Punitive damage awards are not ordinary, yet they do make the news occasionally as the amount of money awarded can be very large and at times seem ‘over-the-top’.   A personal injury attorney would be able to assist an injured person in their claim for damages and help in determining if these facts would lead to a punitive damage award in addition to compensatory damages.

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