What can you recover in a personal injury lawsuit in the Palmetto State, and how much?
You’ve probably heard lawyers throw around the term “damages,” or maybe you’ve seen the legal thriller television series starring Glenn Close and Ted Danson.
But what does the term mean?
The term “damages” refers to the total sum of money a plaintiff can be awarded in a personal injury lawsuit.
There are several different types of damages. What’s more, every state has its own laws that determine which damages a plaintiff can receive and whether or not those damages are capped (i.e. limited).
Let’s take a close look at the damages available in a South Carolina personal injury lawsuit.
Compensatory damages in South Carolina
Compensatory damages (sometimes called “actual damages”) are intended to compensate the plaintiff for their losses caused by the defendant’s actions. In other words, the goal of compensatory damages is to put the plaintiff in the same position they were in before the accident.
In South Carolina, plaintiffs are allowed to recover 2 types of compensatory damages: economic damages and non-economic damages.
Let’s take a closer look at both.
Economic damages (sometimes called “special damages”) are intended to compensate the plaintiff for the monetary losses caused by their accident. Economic damages are generally measurable and objectively verifiable.
For example, medical expenses are economic damages. The amount of medical expenses incurred as a result of an accident can be verified by examining the plaintiff’s medical bills.
Here are some common economic damages:
- Medical expenses. Medical expenses include everything from surgeries and hospital visits to physical therapy and prescription drugs. What’s more, a plaintiff can recover past medical expenses (the medical expenses incurred at the time the lawsuit is filed) and future medical expenses (the medical expenses the plaintiff can reasonably expect to incur in the future).
- Lost income. If the plaintiff misses work for a period of time due to their injury, they can recover the amount of money they would have earned had they not been forced to miss work. Similarly, if the plaintiff has to take a lesser paying job because of their injury, they can recover the difference between the lesser paying job and the job they would have had if they hadn’t been injured.
- Property damage. The plaintiff is entitled to recover the costs of fixing or replacing any personal property damaged in the accident. For example, if the plaintiff is injured in a car accident, they can recover the money needed to repair their vehicle.
Non-economic damages (sometimes called “general damages”) are intended to compensate the plaintiff for the non-monetary consequences of their accident. Unlike economic damages, non-economic damages are subjective.
Here are some common non-economic damages:
- Pain and suffering. When a defendant causes physical pain and suffering, the plaintiff can receive compensation.
- Emotional distress (sometimes called “mental anguish”). Accidents don’t just cause physical pain, they almost always take some sort of emotional toll. In South Carolina, the plaintiff can receive compensation for the emotional consequences of the accident.
- Loss of enjoyment of life. If the plaintiff’s quality of life has decreased because of the accident, the plaintiff can receive compensation for this loss of enjoyment of life.
Punitive damages are separate from compensatory damages.
Instead of trying to compensate the plaintiff for their losses, punitive damages have 2 purposes:
- To punish the defendant, and
- To deter similar future conduct by the defendant and others.
Punitive damages are only available if the plaintiff can prove by “clear and convincing evidence” that the defendant’s conduct was:
Willful, wanton, and reckless are legal terms that describe actions that are not just careless, but intentional or done with a complete disregard for others’ safety.
South Carolina damage caps
Much to the frustration of plaintiffs, South Carolina (and most other states) cap the amount of certain types of damages that can be recovered. In South Carolina, the following damage caps apply:
- When suing governments and government officials, damages are capped at $300,000 per person or $600,000 per occurrence
- In medical malpractice cases, non-economic damages are capped at $350,000 per defendant and can’t exceed $1.05 million for all defendants
- Punitive damages are capped at $500,000, or 3 times the actual damages (whichever is greater)
How negligence impacts the amount of damages you may recover
South Carolina adopted the modified comparative fault rule. Under this rule, the amount of damages a plaintiff can recover is reduced by their percentage of fault. What’s more, if the plaintiff is determined to be 50% or more at fault, the plaintiff is barred from recovering any damages.
Let’s look at an example:
Robert is seriously injured and sues Loretta for $100,000. The court finds that Loretta is 80% at fault for running the stop sign. The court also finds that Robert is 20% at fault for driving over the speed limit.
Under South Carolina’s modified comparative fault rule, Robert will only be allowed to recover $80,000 (i.e., 80% of his total damages).
Proof required for damages
The amount of damages you can receive is a factual matter for the jury to decide. In the case of economic damages, it helps to have documentation that can support your losses. Common examples include:
- Medical bills
- Testimony from medical experts as to future medical expenses
- Repair estimates (from body shops, etc.)
Damages worksheet to track expenses for your injury claim (medical treatment, property damage, lost wages, prescriptions)
Download in PDF format
In the case of non-economic damages, testimony from friends and family members may be necessary to establish the impact of the injury on your life.
Post-Accident Journal Form
Sample accident journal/diary to help you document the effect on your daily life
Download in PDF format
How does a court decide whether to award punitive damages?
There’s no set formula for determining the amount of punitive damages that a plaintiff will be awarded. However, the court will generally consider the following factors:
- The defendant’s actions
- The nature and extent of the harm to the plaintiff
- The duration of the conduct
- The defendant’s attempt to conceal the conduct
- The existence of similar past conduct
- The likelihood the award will deter the defendant or others
- The defendant’s wealth or ability to pay
Are you ready to meet with an attorney to discuss the merits of your case and the damages you might recover? Use our legal directory to locate an experienced personal injury attorney in your area.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.