In a personal injury case, general damages are the compensation you receive for the intangible losses following an injury, like pain and suffering and emotional distress.
By contrast, special damages are the compensation for losses that are more ascertainable, like medical expenses and lost wages.
While general damages are sometimes referred to as “non-economic damages,” special damages are referred to as “economic damages.”
There are two main differences between these types of damages. These are:
- special damages usually have a measurable dollar amount attached to them while general damages do not, and
- special damages are typically easier to calculate than general damages
A third category of damages are punitive damages. Most states limit this type of compensation to cases where you were injured because of another’s:
1. Is there a specific dollar amount associated with both special and general damages?
With special damages, yes. But not with general damages.
Special damages refer to monetary losses that you may suffer that have a specific value associated with them.
- medical bills and medical expenses,
- lost wages or loss of earnings,
- future lost earning capacity,
- property damage, and
- out-of-pocket expenses.
In contrast, general damages are a type of monetary compensation that are not associated with a specific monetary value.
- pain and suffering,
- loss of companionship,
- loss of consortium,
- mental anguish,
- loss of quality of life,
- emotional distress, and
- disfigurement or impairment.
The above damages are more intangible than special damages. As a result, they often come without a specific dollar amount assigned to them.
Note that both special and general damages are added together to make up an injury victim’s compensatory damages. If you were injured because of another person’s actions, you can receive these usually via a:
- personal injury case or lawsuit (filed in a state court), or
- personal injury claim (filed with an insurance company).
2. Are both types of damages easy to calculate?
Not necessarily. Since special damages have a set dollar value assigned to them, they are often fairly easy to determine.
For example, say you were injured in a car accident and had to undergo medical treatment as a result. You can estimate the total cost of this treatment by adding up all of your medical bills.
But since general damages come with no exact dollar amount associated with them, they are often difficult to calculate.
Consider, for example, a person that suffers severe physical pain in a slip and fall accident. The accident victim/injured party is entitled to compensation for the pain, but there is no good way to calculate it.
For this reason, personal injury attorneys usually work with expert witnesses to help a judge or jury understand the true value of general damages.
Note that if you have suffered general damages and are filing a personal injury claim with an insurer, you should speak with a personal injury lawyer to get help in calculating these damages.
Most attorneys and law firms provide free consultations, which means you can get your questions answered at little or no cost.
3. What are punitive damages?
Punitive damages are a third type of damage that some injury victims may receive. Unlike compensatory damages, punitive damages are meant to punish the person or entity responsible for causing the injury.
Most states say that you can recover them in injury cases, but typically only when you were hurt because of a person’s:
- intentional acts,
- fraudulent acts, or
- gross negligence.
Consider, for example, Florida law. The law says that injury victims s can receive punitive damages, but only when they were hurt because of another person’s:
- “intentional misconduct,” or
- “gross negligence.”1
4. Do states impose caps on damages?
Some do while others do not. A “damage cap” is a legal term that means you can only receive a certain amount of damages in an injury case. In other words, the damages are “capped” at a certain dollar amount.
State laws vary when it comes to caps. Some states only cap special damages, while some only cap general damages. Further, some states place caps on both, while a few do not cap either.
For example, in California, there are generally no caps on the compensatory damages that you can receive in a personal injury case. A judge or jury can award you with any fair and reasonable sum.
But the state says that medical malpractice cases are an exception. In a California medical malpractice case, there is a cap of $250,000 on pain and suffering and other non-economic damages.2