Those who prevail in a civil action for personal injuries are typically entitled to recover damages. The precise amount of a personal injury damage award is determined by a jury on a case-by-case basis. If the award is excessive or deficient, a court may review the award and increase or decrease the final amount without a new trial or appeal. A personal injury damage award may include two types of damages: compensatory damages and punitive damages.
Compensatory damages are designed to place a victim in the position he or she would be in if the injury had never occurred. By placing a dollar amount on the victim's injuries, compensatory damages seek to restore the victim financially, physically and emotionally. Compensatory damages may be divided into two categories: damages that compensate victims for monetary losses (also known as special damages), and damages that compensate victims for non-monetary losses (also known as general damages).
Compensatory damages for monetary losses include:
Medical expenses. Damages for medical expenses may include the costs of both past and future medical care and rehabilitation. Future costs are calculated by estimating the patient's medical needs for the rest of his or her life expectancy.
Costs of living with a disability. An injury may result in a disability that requires a victim to significantly alter his or her lifestyle. Compensatory damages may cover the costs associated with this change. For example, a damage award may compensate a victim for the costs of renovating a house to make it wheelchair-accessible, or the costs of in-home nursing care or assistance.
Lost wages. A victim may recover any wages lost while recovering from an injury, as well as any lost earning capacity suffered as a result of an injury.
Repair or replacement of property. A victim may recover the costs of property damage suffered in a car accident, or other type of accident. Property is typically valued at its fair market value at the time of the injury.
Funeral expenses. The family of a personal injury victim may recover the costs of any funeral expenses incurred as a result of the injury.
Non-monetary damages may be difficult to calculate and damage awards may vary significantly between victims. Damages for non-monetary losses include:
Pain and suffering. Damages for pain and suffering typically include compensation for actual physical pain, as well as compensation for emotional distress. Emotional distress is defined as the frustration, fear, anger and loss of enjoyment of life associated with suffering from a debilitating injury.
Loss of consortium. Spouses of personal injury victims may receive damages for the loss of the emotional and intangible elements of marriage, such as loss of affection, solace, comfort, companionship, society, assistance, and sexual relations.
Punitive damages are not designed to compensate the victim, but to punish the defendant for inflicting the victim's injuries and to deter others from engaging in similar behavior. Punitive damages are typically awarded when the defendant's conduct has been especially egregious or outrageous. Punitive damages are not awarded in every personal injury case, and may not be considered unless a compensatory damage award has been ordered. In order to avoid excessive punitive damage awards, courts typically limit punitive damages to less than ten times the amount of compensatory damages.
Recipients of large personal injury damage awards may opt to receive the award in the form of a structured settlement. Structured settlements serve as an alternative to lump-sum damage awards. Structured settlements disburse the damage award to the victim on a monthly or annual basis over a certain period of time. There are many benefits to choosing a structured settlement, including reduced federal and state income taxes, and an increased likelihood of recovery from the defendant. Because each victim's financial needs are different, those considering a structured settlement should first consult an attorney as well as a financial planning professional.