Helpful Information

What Are Compensatory Damages?

Posted by Harlene Labrum | Sep 07, 2021

When people think about a lawsuit, they typically understand that a victim can obtain compensation for their injuries or losses through a judgment or settlement. However, not everyone understand the difference between what compensatory damages are vs. punitive damages, or how to maximize the amount of compensatory damages a victim can seek. Call the Tennessee personal injury lawyers at Labrum Law at 615-338-9500 or contact us online for a free consultation. 

What Is Negligence?

Most personal injury cases, like car accidents, slip and falls, dog bites, and many others, are based on a doctrine called “negligence.” When a person is careless and causes someone else's injury, they may be liable for damages stemming from the accident. To establish a claim of negligence against a defendant, the plaintiff needs to prove:

  1. Duty of care. The plaintiff must show that the defendant owed them a duty of care. Generally, everyone owes a duty of care to others to exercise reasonable caution to avoid harm. For instance, in a car accident case, the injured driver could argue that every driver on the road has a duty to pay attention, behave reasonably, and take care to avoid accidents. In cases such as medical malpractice, physicians and medical workers have a duty to act with the same degree of skill or competence as a reasonable physician under the same circumstances. Special relationships can give rise to special duties, such as parent-child, or lawyer-client, for example.

  2. Breach of duty. A person breaches a duty when their conduct falls below the standard of care recognized by law. In a car accident case, for example, a driver breaches their duty of care when they are carelessly texting while driving, driving under the influence, or not paying attention to traffic signals. 

  3. In a negligence action, the injured party must show that the defendant's breach of their duty actually and foreseeably caused their injury. In many personal injury cases, this element is somewhat straightforward. A plaintiff driver can usually establish that the car accident was caused by the other driver when that driver ran a red light or rear-ended the car in front of them. If not for that driver's negligent behavior, the accident would not have happened.

  4. Finally, the injured party must establish damages. The purpose of a personal injury or negligence lawsuit is to make the injured party whole again. Damages are the measure of the injured party's losses related to the accident. In car accident cases, damages are usually measured in terms of medical expenses, property repairs, and lost wages. 

Types of Damages in a Negligence Case

Damages is a very broad term for any losses incurred in an accident or transaction giving rise to a civil lawsuit. Whether the lawsuit relates to a breached contract, a car accident, a landlord-tenant dispute, or any other kind of conflict, a party can generally seek damages for anything they lost. Damages are typically broken down into compensatory and punitive damages. An experienced personal injury attorney can generally help you identify any losses you incurred and calculate a fair settlement value to recover your damages. 

What Are Compensatory Damages?

Compensatory damages are the most common type of damages to seek in a personal injury claim. The term is somewhat self-explanatory: compensatory damages are intended to compensate the victim for their losses. These damages can be both economic and non-economic in nature. Economic damages compensate the victim for monetary losses, while non-economic damages try to put a dollar value on the intangible losses the victim has suffered.

Economic Damages

Some of the most common types of compensatory economic damages are:

  • Past and future medical bills. Any medical bills attributable to the defendant's negligence can be included in economic damages. Many people do not realize that they can seek compensation not only for past medical expenses, but they can also hold the defendant liable for any future medical bills that relate to the accident. For example, a neck injury will require ongoing physical therapy or surgical treatment, and these expenses should be included in your demand for compensatory damages.

  • Property damage. Many civil claims also seek compensation for property damage arising from the incident. The cost of car repairs, damage to your house, or destroyed personal property can be recovered as compensatory damages.

  • Past and future lost wages. If an accident took you out of work long enough that you lost out on wages, these losses can be addressed by compensatory damages as well. 

  • Loss of earning capacity. In extreme cases, an injury can not only hurt a victim's ability to earn wages in the present, but it can also impair the victim's ability to earn money forever. For example, if a surgeon suffers a spinal injury in a car accident that causes permanent numbness in their hands, they can no longer work as a surgeon, which will likely decrease the amount they can earn in their lifetime. This is an example of when a victim might seek damages for loss of earning capacity.

  • Incidental expenses. Compensatory damages also include any out-of-pocket expenses that were necessitated by the accident. If an injury caused you to have to pay for transportation to and from doctor's appointments, install a ramp or other medical equipment in your house, or hire help to handle household chores and family duties, these may also be recoverable.

Non-Economic Damages

On the other hand, non-economic damages are more challenging to quantify, but they are nonetheless compensable. Victims lose so much more than money after a serious accident; they also suffer intangible losses. A few examples of non-economic compensatory damages include:

  • Pain and suffering. Pain and suffering is a commonly understood phrase. Depending on the severity and length of the accident, pain and suffering damages can be extremely high. If an accident caused chronic pain that made life difficult or unbearable, compensatory damages should include pain and suffering. 

  • Emotional distress. Emotional distress can also arise from an accident, even if the injury was physical in nature. Traumatic cases like car or truck accidents can leave a victim with nightmares, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other psychological ailments that require treatment. This distress is another basis for compensatory damages. 

  • Loss of enjoyment of life. For many people, the worst part of a physical accident is that they can no longer do the things that they love to do. Hiking, running, dancing, traveling, or simply spending quality time with family and friends can be made more difficult or entirely impossible by a serious injury. 

  • Loss of consortium. Loss of consortium is a claim that is available for spouses of victims. When a person is injured, it has a serious impact on the lives of their loved ones. The law recognizes a remedy for spouses whose spouse was seriously injured or killed because they lose out on the benefits of this important relationship. Having to care for an injured spouse, losing a helping hand around the house, and losing an intimate relationship with a partner can give rise to a loss of consortium claim for a non-victim spouse.

Note that in Tennessee, there is a cap (limit) on non-economic damages. Pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-39-102(a)(2), for non-catastrophic injuries, an award of non-economic damages cannot exceed $750,000 per plaintiff. If you suffered any injuries or losses as a result of someone else's negligence, contact the experienced attorneys at Labrum Law to learn more about all of your legal rights.

What Are Punitive Damages?

Punitive damages are a very rare remedy. While compensatory damages are intended to help make the victim whole again by compensating what they lost, punitive damages are intended to punish the wrongdoer. Under Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-39-104, punitive damages are only available when the plaintiff can show by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant behaved maliciously, intentionally, fraudulently, or recklessly. This means that rather than mere negligence, the at-fault party must have either caused harm on purpose or acted so egregiously outside the realm of normal conduct that the court finds it appropriate to punish them for it. 

What Are Compensatory Damages? Call Labrum Law to Help You Understand Your Legal Rights

The Nashville attorneys at Labrum Law have helped many personal injury victims seek the maximum amount of compensatory damages they were entitled to under the law. We work hard to ensure our clients receive both justice and fair settlement offers. If you suffered an injury as the result of someone else's negligence or carelessness, consider visiting with an experienced personal injury attorney to help you identify how much your case is worth. Call our office at 615-338-9500 or contact us online for a free consultation about your case. 

About the Author

Harlene Labrum

Harlene is focused and passionate about helping those injured in car wrecks.  She earned her J.D. at Nashville School of Law and her Bachelor's degree at State University of New York at Albany, awarded with the highest GPA and high honors.  Harlene began her career in law as a personal injury par...

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