Contact Us for a Free Consultation 818-394-7835


What is the Difference Between Special and General Damages?

Posted by Inna Gorin | Oct 06, 2022

Many people get confused about the different types of damages mentioned in personal injury cases. The two main types are general damages and special damages.

What is the Difference Between Special and General Damages?
Special damages in California are payments for losses that are tangible, such as medical expenses.

General damages are payments for intangible losses that result from an injury, such as emotional distress or pain and suffering. But special damages are payments for losses that are tangible, such as lost wages and medical expenses.

Put simply, in California personal injury cases, general damages are the compensation you receive for the intangible losses after an injury, such as loss of companionship, loss of consortium (marital relationship benefits), loss of quality of life, physical pain, impairment, disfigurement, etc.

By contrast, special damages compensate for more calculable losses, such as medical bills, ER visits, rehabilitation, physical therapy, medications, etc. General damages are often called “non-economic damages,” and special damages are “economic damages.”

There are a few main differences between these types of damages. First, special damages typically have a specific dollar amount attached to them, while general damages do not. The other difference is that special damages are usually easier to calculate than general damages.

What Does General Damages Cover?

General damages provide monetary rewards but are not necessarily associated with a specific monetary value. For instance, you might be awarded general damages to recover for the following:

  • loss of companionship,
  • loss of consortium,
  • mental anguish of losing a loved one because of an injury;
  • recovery of injuries like pain and suffering (present and future),
  • loss of quality of life,
  • emotional distress such as PTSD, and
  • impairment;
  • disfigurement, such as scarring;
  • disability.

General damages are intangible and thus hard to calculate. For instance, if you fell while walking in the grocery store and suffered from pain, the compensation would be hard to determine.

Therefore, personal injury attorneys tend to work with expert witnesses to help the court calculate the actual value of the injuries.

Additionally, if an injured person decides not to file in state court but to file a personal injury claim with their insurer, a lawyer could help the insurer calculate the necessary damages award.

To prove general damages, personal injury lawyers will often work with expert witnesses to help a judge or jury get some understanding of the value of general damages. Sometimes, even pain management experts could testify to your level of pain.

What Does Special Damages Cover?

Unlike general damages, special damages cover an individual's monetary losses from an injury. They have associated specific values and thus are much easier to calculate. Special damages tend to include:

  • property damage,
  • out-of-pocket costs,
  • lost wages or loss of earnings,
  • medical bills, or
  • future lost earning ability.

For example, if you are involved in a car accident and shattered your femur, special damages would cover the cost of your medical bills and the damages to your vehicle. You can even estimate future medical bills based on what your doctor recommends in your course of treatment.

Lost wages could be determined by multiplying your past paycheck amount by the number of pay periods you cannot work.

Further, suppose your car was totaled. In that case, you can use the Kelly Blue Book to determine the current value.

Notably, when special and general damages are added, they make up an injury victim's compensatory damages. Suppose you were injured because of someone's actions.  In that case, you can receive these awards through a personal injury lawsuit filed in a state court or with an insurance company.

Compensatory Damages vs. Punitive Damages

Both general and special damages are considered compensatory damages, which are awarded during a personal injury case or lawsuit in state court or a personal injury claim filed with an insurance company.

Compensatory damages are different from punitive damages. In most states, punitive damages are limited to injuries that result from another person's fraudulent acts, willful conduct, or gross negligence.

Compensatory Damages vs. Punitive Damages
California law says you can recover punitive damages if there is evidence of fraud or malice.

California law specifies that an individual can recover punitive damages if there is clear and convincing evidence that the other party is guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice.

Clear and Convincing Evidence

In California, to recover compensatory damages, the burden is placed on the plaintiff to prove that each element of their claim has been proven beyond a preponderance of the evidence. Essentially, they must prove that it is more likely than not that each element of their assertion is actual.

But for punitive damages, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant exhibited malice, oppression, or fraud by clear and convincing evidence—i.e., there is a high degree of probability that the defendant behaved maliciously, oppressively, or committed fraud.

Malice, Oppression, Fraud

According to California Civil Code 3294(c), malice is any conduct that the defendant intended to cause the plaintiff injury or despicable behavior that the defendant committed with willful and conscious indifference to the safety and rights of others.

Oppression is despicable conduct that subjects an individual to cruel and unwarranted suffering in conscious indifference to their rights.

That same code also defines fraud as a deliberate misrepresentation, concealment, or deceit of a substantial fact, which the defendant made to deprive the other person of property or legal rights or otherwise trigger an injury.

Are There Limits to Damages You Can Receive?

Many states impose a “damage cap” on how much damages you can recover for any specific accident. Some specifically cap special damages, while others only cap general damages. And some impose caps on both.

But in California, there are usually no caps on the general damages or specific damages you can be awarded unless this is a medical malpractice case. For medical malpractice cases, where a physician has acted or immitted an action while treating a patient and causes an injury to the patient, general damages are capped at $250,000.

If you are involved in a personal injury accident, an experienced attorney can help uphold your rights. You contact our law firm for a free case evaluation by phone or through the contact form. The Injury Justice Law Firm has offices in Los Angeles, California.

Related Content:

About the Author

Inna Gorin

Inna Gorin, the founding Partner of Injury Justice Law Firm modeled the Firm after her ideals and principles of what skilled, aggressive and tenacious representation of individual clients should embody. Ms. Gorin's mission is to level the playing field, and provide her clients with the same level...


If you have been injured in an accident, our experienced Los Angeles personal injury attorneys will protect your legal rights and help you recover compensation for your injuries. We are available 24/7 for your risk free initial consultation in Beverly Hills, Encino, Glendale, Hermosa Beach, Lancaster, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Marina Del Rey, Redondo Beach, Torrance, Santa Monica, San Fernando Valley, Valencia and Ventura County areas.