When you file a personal injury lawsuit, you’re asking the court to award “damages,” or a monetary amount that’s intended to compensate you for your losses.
The essence of personal injury law is that it’s intended to make you, the plaintiff, whole again. In other words, the person who was injured seeks to be restored to the condition they were in before the injury happened.
Of course, you can’t always return to the same physical condition you were in before the accident or injury, and you certainly can’t bring back a lost loved one. But a damage award should at least restore your bank account. It should provide money to pay for your past and future injury-related medical expenses, any ongoing treatments or therapies, costs for assistance with your daily activities, and other costs associated with the original injury, including pain and suffering.
From a legal perspective, a personal injury is any physical or economic harm caused by another person or entity’s negligence.
For our purposes, we’ll refer to a “defendant” as a person. But in reality, a defendant could be anything that has legal status — a person, company, government agency, school, or nonprofit organization.
“Injury” can be the result of a car accident. It can also be an accident that occurred because of dangerous surroundings (like a slip-and-fall on a slick floor in an office building). It could be that you were wronged in a contract dispute over real property, or it could be that you were the victim of libel or slander.
A personal injury doesn’t necessarily mean that you were physically hurt. It only means that you suffered some kind of harm — physical, emotional, or economic — that was caused by someone who was negligent or reckless.
Let’s take a look at the types of damages you can be awarded in a California personal injury lawsuit.
Compensatory damages are the money that you can receive to repay you for financial losses or costs directly related to the injury. These include both economic and non-economic damages.
Economic includes medical costs, income, and property loss. Non-economic could be pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of consortium, and loss of enjoyment of life.
Here’s a breakdown:
In general, a personal injury award isn’t intended to punish a defendant. As we said earlier, it’s about making the plaintiff whole. Of course, that does mean the defendant must pay the damage award, but it’s about providing the plaintiff what they’re owed.
Punitive damages are a whole different story.
If the defendant’s actions were particularly egregious or careless, the court could determine that the defendant needs to be punished. In that situation, the court awards punitive damages, or an extra amount of damages on top of the compensatory amount, that’s designed to punish the defendant from wrongdoing. In California, punitive damages are also referred to as “exemplary” damages.
California law requires that the court take 3 factors into consideration when evaluating the validity of a punitive damage award claim:
|Case study: Taylor v. Superior Court (598 P. 2d 854 - Cal: Supreme Court 1979)|
|“Something more than the mere commission of a tort is always required for punitive damages. There must be circumstances of aggravation or outrage, such as spite or ‘malice’ or a fraudulent or evil motive on the part of the defendant, or such a conscious and deliberate disregard of the interests of others that his conduct may be called willful or wanton.”
Plaintiff Cameron Charles Taylor sued Clair William Stille for damages from a car accident in which Stille was driving drunk. During the course of the lawsuit, it was determined that Stille knew that he was an alcoholic and that he had a “tendency, habit, history, practice, proclivity, or inclination to drive a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol.” He was also aware of how dangerous it is to do so.
The court found that driving drunk was a conscious disregard for the safety of others, enough to satisfy the requirement for malice under the Civil Code. Taylor was able to establish that Stille was aware of the probable dangerous consequences of his actions, and willfully and deliberately failed to avoid those consequences.
Taylor v. Superior Court is still cited in court cases today.
California’s punitive damages are based on these definitions of malice, oppression, and fraud in its Civil Code.
|Malice||Conduct intended by the defendant to cause injury to the plaintiff, or despicable conduct by the defendant with a willful and conscious disregard of others’ rights or safety.|
|Oppression||Despicable conduct subjecting a person to cruel and unjust hardship in conscious disregard for that person’s rights.|
|Fraud||Intentional misrepresentation, deceit, or concealment of a material fact known to the defendant, made with defendant’s intent to deprive the plaintiff of property or legal rights, or to otherwise cause injury.|
California doesn’t cap compensatory damages in personal injury lawsuits. In other words, there’s no maximum amount for an award. It’s up to the judge and jury to establish a fair and reasonable award of damages.
The exception to this is California medical malpractice, which caps at $250,000 on pain and suffering and other non-economic damages.
Pain and suffering falls into the category of non-economic damages. You can put a cost on therapy sessions, medication, and lost work time, but you can’t put a price on feelings.
Pain and suffering includes:
Figuring out how much to claim in damages following an injury is a tough task. Fortunately, you don’t have to do it alone. A personal injury lawyer can help you calculate a reasonable demand based on the expert opinions of medical and financial professionals, as well as precedent (similar cases that have already been decided).
Use the Enjuris Personal Injury Law Firm Directory to find a California lawyer who’s right for your case. They’ll walk you through the steps to filing a lawsuit, negotiating a settlement, and going to court if it becomes necessary. Regardless, they’ll work hard to get the outcome you need to replace your financial and additional losses.