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What is the Difference Between Special Damages 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 in personal injury cases are general damages and special damages. General damages are payments for intangible losses that result from an injury, such as emotional distress or pain and suffering. Special damages, on the other hand, are payments for losses that are tangible, such as lost wages and medical expenses.

The main differences between these two types of damages are that special damages can be measured by a specific dollar amount and are easier to calculate, whereas general damages are completely subjective. 

What Do General Damages Cover?

General damages provide monetary compensation, but they are not necessarily associated with a specific value. For instance, you might be awarded general damages for the loss of companionship, loss of consortium, or mental anguish of losing a loved one because of an injury. They are also meant to compensate the victim for pain and suffering, loss of quality of life, emotional distress, and impairment or disfigurement. 

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 value of that pain would be difficult to calculate. Some people have a low pain threshold, and even the slight amount of discomfort causes them a great deal of anguish. Others may scarcely feel any pain at all. Personal injury attorneys tend to work with expert witnesses to establish a baseline of compensation for such intangible injuries.

What Do Special Damages Cover?

Unlike general damages, special damages cover monetary losses an individual may have suffered from an injury. They have specific values associated with them 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 associated with that injury, as well as the damages to your vehicle. 

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. 

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 true. 

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 conduct that the defendant committed with willful and conscious indifference to the safety and rights of others. Oppression is defined as 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 omitted an action while treating a patient and causes an injury to the patient, general damages were capped at $250,000 for decades. However, earlier this year, a law was enacted that increased the cap to $350,000 or $500,000 depending on whether the case involved wrongful death. The cap is set to increase each year until it reaches $750,000 or $1 million respectively.

If you are involved in a personal injury accident, an experienced attorney can help ensure your rights are upheld. 

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...


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