When you hear about personal injury lawsuits, you may hear how much the defendant had to pay out in damages. However, there are actually two main types of damages that could be paid out: compensatory and punitive. Complicating the issue is the fact that compensatory damages can be general or special damages. Let’s explore each type of damages in detail.
Compensatory damages are the most likely to be paid out and the easiest to understand. They are compensation for costs due to the injured party, and they are typically the costs associated with the accident someone can tally up and file a claim for. Compensatory damages include medical bills, car repair bills, lost wages, and costs they incurred they otherwise wouldn’t have had to pay if the accident hadn’t happened. Compensatory damages may be awarded when someone dies; this can include the estimated wages the person would have received over a lifetime and their burial costs.
Punitive damages periodically make the news because they can be so high. They’re rarely awarded because they aren’t tied to the harm someone suffered but are instead used to punish the guilty party. Like compensatory damages, punitive damages are paid to the injured party or the plaintiff in the case. Punitive damages are only paid out if the behavior that caused the harm was despicable or reprehensible. A common example is when the injuries are due to fraud or malicious acts. It can include aggravated battery, fraudulent behavior that cost someone everything, or sexual assault.
Punitive damages are occasionally paid out when a company sells a defective product. Juries awarding million or billion dollar judgments in suits against manufacturers tend to fall into the category.
General damages are non-pecuniary or non-financial damages intended to compensate for a type of harm “generally” sustained in an injury. They get this name because all personal injury cases are expected to have some sort of general damage. General damages include pain and suffering, mental anguish and loss of companionship. This last category is often used for the loss of a loved one but can be claimed in other cases, too. For example, an adult child who took care of an aging parent can only be replaced by hiring a caregiver. The same claim can be made when a stay at home mother is killed; the family can sue not only for the emotional harm they suffer but the loss of her contributions to the family. That said, these damages are separate from the obvious damages owed when the family had to pay a nanny to watch the children while the mother was in the hospital and her attendant medical bills before her death.
Special damages received that name because they are special or unique to each case. The special damages require a number of estimates and projections that are specific to that case. Special damages include lost earnings, lost future earnings, the cost of future medical care, and the costs of life interruptions. There is no limit to the types of either special damages claimed or the amount that someone can request for each category of special damages.
How Does Someone Collect Damages?
Suppose someone won their personal injury case in court, and a large judgment was issued in their favor. This doesn’t mean they simply receive the money. The party that lost has an interest in appealing the judgment, especially if it is a very large sum. This is a risky gamble, because interest accrues on the balance owed while the case is being appealed. They’ll owe the amount in full plus interest if they lose their appeal. In some cases, the guilty party’s liability insurance will pay the damages up to the limits set by the insurance policy. In these cases, the liability insurance company will pay for the person’s defense to try to avoid paying the judgment, too.
In other cases, the guilty party cannot pay immediately because the sum is so large. After all, the rapist or swindler may not have a million dollars on hand to pay the judgment even if they sell their house. These cases can drive someone to bankruptcy, at which point, the debt may be settled for less than the original judgment. Then you simply get a portion of the value of all the assets sold by the trustee handling the bankruptcy, though other creditors will receive part of the funds, too. Bankruptcy doesn’t automatically remove liens, and bankruptcy may not be able to remove the judgment liens against someone’s property. This is why you want to file liens as soon as possible.
The personal injury attorney can begin the collections process by placing liens on the person’s property, garnishing their wages, and researching the person’s assets. They can begin the process of levying bank accounts for the amount owed, as well.