What Is the Difference Between Punitive Damages and Actual Damages?
In a personal injury lawsuit, you have the right to collect compensatory damages for losses you suffered in an accident that was not your fault. The aftermath of these accidents can leave us with unexpected medical expenses, lost wages while we are healing, property damage, emotional anguish, and more – and filing a lawsuit provides a pathway to recover from these significant damages. There are many types of damages you can claim, including actual damages and punitive damages.
What Are Actual Damages?
Actual damages refer to the financial, physical, and emotional losses you suffered as a result of the accident. They make up the bulk of the settlement that the court can award you at the conclusion of your case, and seek to help you restore your financial standing to what it was prior to the accident. To claim these damages, you will need to prove that the accident was the direct cause for them.
Actual damages come in two categories: economic and non-economic. Economic damages refer to the tangible financial losses you suffered from in the course of the accident. You can prove these damages in court by supplying invoices, receipts, and bills. Common economic damages include the following.
- Past and future medical expenses for doctor’s visits, surgeries, hospitalization, etc.
- Lost wages during recovery time or loss of earning the ability
- Disability accommodations to a home or vehicle
- Property damage
On the other hand, you cannot supply receipts or invoices to prove non-economic damages. These actual damages include the intangible losses you suffer in the wake of an accident, commonly known as pain and suffering damages. Some examples of non-economic damages include the following.
- Emotional distress
- Chronic pain
- Depression or anxiety
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Loss of quality of life
Courts calculate the amount of the non-economic damages you can claim in different ways. In most situations, the jury will examine the facts of your case after your attorney proves that the at-fault party is the cause of your injuries. Based on your case, the jury will assign an amount based on a combination of evidence and reasonability.
In the state of California, there are no caps on economic or non-economic damages in personal injury lawsuits. However, there is a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases.
What Are Punitive Damages?
On the other hand, the court does not intend for punitive damages to restore your financial standing to what it was prior to the accident. Their purpose is to punish the at-fault party in your case for dangerous, reckless, negligent, or intentional behavior. At the conclusion of your case, the at-fault party will have to pay punitive damages on top of actual damages – they will not affect the outcome of your settlement.
The court will determine whether or not the at-fault party acted in a way that warrants punitive damages and makes a decision on the amount he or she will have to pay. The amount can vary based on the circumstances of your case, and the more severe cases typically result in a higher amount of punitive damages.
Do You Need an Attorney for Your Personal Injury Case?
Calculating these damages and knowing exactly how much you can claim in civil court can be difficult. You may forget about a certain line item that you could claim as an economic loss, or remain unsure of whether or not you qualify for non-economic damages. If you are filing a personal injury lawsuit, consider hiring a personal injury attorney to assist you with your case.
Your lawyer can help you determine which economic and non-economic damages you can claim, collect the evidence necessary to prove your economic losses, advise you on the amount of non-economic damages you might receive, and whether or not your case could qualify for punitive damages.
If you are grappling with the aftermath of an accident caused by someone else’s negligence or reckless, you have legal options available to you. Depending on the circumstances of your case, you may be able to claim actual and punitive damages for your losses. If you have not done so already, contact a personal injury attorney to discuss your case and to begin the filing process.