In California personal injury cases, the term compensatory damages refers to money that a wrongdoer pays in order to compensate a victim for losses. This contrasts with punitive damages, which are intended to punish the defendant and discourage others from similar behavior.
In California accident or injury cases, types of compensatory damages – also called actual damages – fall into two basic categories:
- Economic (pecuniary) damages, such as medical bills, property damage and lost wages, which can be assigned a monetary value, and
- Non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering, which are more difficult to quantify.
To help you better understand how to recover compensatory damages in a California personal injury case, our California personal injury lawyers discuss, below:
- 1. Economic damages in a personal injury case
- 2. Non-economic damages in a personal injury case
- 3. Are there damage caps in California?
A plaintiff’s “economic damages” are those to which a dollar amount can readily be attached. Also called special damages, economic damages are intended to cover “out-of-pocket” amounts the plaintiff has actually spent or will be required to spend in the future.
Economic losses often include (but are not limited to):
- Past and future medical expenses (including for mental health medical treatments, prescription drugs, home health care, etc.),
- Property damage,
- Lost wages / loss of earnings, and
- Lost earning capacity.1
Non-economic damages are those which do not necessarily involve out-of-pocket expenses or a particular sum of money. Also called general damages (as opposed to special damages), non-economic damages include more subjective losses such as:
- Pain and suffering,
- Emotional distress and mental anguish,
- Physical impairment (such as loss of the use of a limb or organ),
- Unjust hardship,
- Loss of consortium,
- Inconvenience, and
- Loss of enjoyment of life.2
In general, California state law places no cap on the amount of compensatory damages in a personal injury case. The jury (or, in a bench trial, the judge) can award any fair and reasonable monetary award in a car accident case, a slip and fall case, or in other accident cases.
Medical malpractice cases are an exception, however. In a California medical malpractice case, there is a cap of $250,000 on pain and suffering and other non-economic damages.3 The cap applies regardless of how serious the injury is or the number of defendants there are. The California Supreme Court has upheld this cap as constitutional.
But there may be other legal theories on which a plaintiff can sue (such as breach of contract, battery, or violation of California’s products liability laws).
Note that there is no cap on the amount of punitive damages (also called exemplary damages) in a personal injury case. But a punitive damage award may not be grossly excessive or arbitrary. Punitive damages are meant to punish a defendant’s conduct.
For more information on proving compensatory damages in California, we invite you to browse our articles on specific types of damage.
For additional help…
If you or a loved one has been injured in an auto accident or other accident as the result of someone else’s negligence or other wrongful act, our personal injury attorneys invite you to contact us.
Call us to discuss your case with an experienced California injury lawyer. We have tort law offices in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and throughout the state of California.
- CACI 3909. See, for example: Williams v. The Pep Boys Manny Moe & Jack of California (2018) 27 Cal.App.5th 225; Gutierrez v. Cassiar Mining Corp. (1998) 64 Cal.App.4th 148; Martinez v. State Dept. of Health Care Services (2017) 19 Cal.App.5th 370.
- CACI 3905. See, for example: Pearl v. City of Los Angeles (2019) 36 Cal.App.5th 475; Bigler-Engler v. Breg, Inc. (2017) 7 Cal.App.5th 276; Wilson v. Southern California Edison Co. (2015) 234 Cal.App.4th 123.
- California Civil Code 3333.2(b). Fein v. Permanente Medical Group (1985) 38 Cal.3d 137.