How to Recover Compensatory Damages
Compensatory damages are money that a negligent party pays in order to compensate a victim for the losses they suffered in a California personal injury case.
In an accident or injury cases, compensatory damages fall under the umbrella of two basic categories.
The first is “economic damages,” like medical expenses, property damage and lost wages from work, which can be given a specific dollar amount.
The other category is “non-economic damages,” like pain and suffering, which are much harder to quantify.
Compensatory damages are different than punitive damages, which are designed to punish someone and discourage others from similar behavior.
After an accident, it can be hard to know what comes next. You want to focus on healing and recovering completely, but doctor's bills and letters from the insurance company may weigh heavy on your mind.
A personal injury lawsuit can help relieve much of the financial burden associated with accidents.
Determining the value of a personal injury case normally depends on a close review of the potential damages. Civil Code § 3281 states:
- “Anyone who suffers detriment from the unlawful act or omission of someone else, may recover from the person in fault a compensation therefor in money, which is called damages.”
In California, accident victims who suffered injuries through no fault of their own may pursue legal action against the party responsible.
The goal is to make the plaintiff economically whole again. While no amount of money can undo the damage caused by negligent parties, compensation can help pave the way to a brighter tomorrow. Civil Code § 32333 states:
- For the breach of an obligation not from a contract, the measure of damages is the amount which will compensate for all the detriment proximately caused thereby, whether it could have been anticipated or not.
Our Los Angeles personal injury attorneys are providing a more detailed review below.
What are Economic Damages for Personal Injury Cases?
When a person is injured in an accident caused by someone else, they're often entitled to economic damages.
Sometimes referred to as special damages, they're designed to cover the accident-related expenses a plaintiff spent out-of-pocket.
For instance, a car accident victim might have paid to see their primary care physician after their wreck to receive treatment for their injuries.
The victim may opt to pursue legal action against the at-fault driver and seek economic damages – like the cost of seeing their doctor – in a personal injury lawsuit.
Economic losses generally include several basic categories, such as the following:
- medical expenses,
- property damage,
- lost wages and earnings,
- lost earning capacity, and
- inability to pursue a career.
This refers to the wage-earning potential a person loses out on when their accident causes permanent disabilities.
Readers should note that in determining the reasonable amount of medical bills for past medical expenses, the correct value is not the actual bill, rather it's the amount paid or required to be paid.
Most health insurance providers will have a contract with other providers for a reduced rate for services, which is the rate will be used in calculating damages.
Loss of earnings will include any wages, commissions, bonuses, or any other financial earnings or fringe benefits that the victim would have been obtained if the injury didn't occur. Typically, the proof needed to show lost earnings is pay stubs, W-2 forms, etc.
Loss of future earnings also includes everything listed above that the victim would have recovered if the injury did not occur.
Further, it includes benefits from social security, and for any lost years that could have been contributed.
Put simply, the goal of damages is to put the injured party back in the same situation as if the injury never occurred.
What are Non-Economic Damages?
While it's hard to imagine attaching a dollar figure to the pain and suffering experienced during an accident, non-economic damages aim to do just that.
Put simply, they don't involve out-of-pocket expenses.
Also called general damages, they refer to subjective losses that can't be measured in the same way doctor's bills and therapy expenses can.
Non-economic damages include subjective losses including the following:
- emotional distress,
- pain and suffering,
- physical scarring or impairment,
- unjust hardship, and
- loss of life enjoyment.
California Civil Jury Instructions 3905A states that plaintiffs may pursue non-economic damages if the incident did not occur at work.
Understanding how non-economic damages are calculated can be challenging – it's best to ask an experienced attorney for guidance on your specific claim's value.
Punitive Damages vs. Compensatory Damages
Compensatory damages are frequently awarded to accident victims in California. Punitive damages are less common.
Aimed at further penalizing the person responsible for the accident in question, punitive damages are awarded on top of compensatory damages.
For instance, if you're a pedestrian struck by a drunk driver while walking in a crosswalk, a judge or jury may award you compensatory damages.
These will cover expenses associated with medical care, ongoing rehabilitation therapies, and any work you lost out on because of your injuries.
The judge or jury may also award punitive damages when they feel the at-fault driver has demonstrated especially harmful or negligent behaviors.
Drunk drivers and distracted drivers are frequently penalized for such damages.
California Damage Caps
Typically, the state of California does not place caps on compensatory damages in personal injury cases. A judge or jury can award any amount they believe is fair and reasonable for accidents.
Put simply, there are no limits to the compensatory damages a plaintiff can seek in a California personal injury case. The exception to this rule lies with medical malpractice suits.
There is a limit of $250,000 on pain and suffering and other non-economic damages. This rule applies no matter how severe the injury is or how many defendants are involved in the case.
How Insurance Companies Handle Compensatory Damages
While there's no hard and fast rule for calculating compensatory damages, the insurance company may multiply your actual damages (lost wages and medical expenses) by a number between one and five, depending on the severity of your injuries.
For example, if your car accident resulted in $5,000 in medical bills related to your broken leg, the insurance company may multiply that by three, concluding that $15,000 is a reasonable figure for what you've endured.
Most Insurance companies aim to minimize the amount they pay to accident victims, though.
When it comes to determining the value of your compensatory damages, you'll want an attorney representing you in negotiations with the insurance company.
Working with a lawyer experienced in such negotiations will set you up for the best outcome possible.
As you can see, the laws dealing with damages are complex. Thus, you will need qualified legal representation who understands these laws to have the best chance at a favorable recovery.
If you or a loved one was injured in a car accident or other accident due to someone's negligence or other wrongful act, you need to consult a personal injury lawyer to review the details.
Injury Justice Law Firm is based in Los Angeles County and serves clients throughout Southern California. Contact our office for a free consultation at (818) 781-1570, or you can fill out our contact form.