Three Kinds of Damages a Court Might Award
When a plaintiff files a lawsuit because of some other person’s legal wrong, the plaintiff is often seeking damages. Damages are a judicial award of money. Depending on the kind of wrong that the plaintiff alleges, there are different kinds of damages that he or she might be able to recover. A short blog post like this couldn’t possibly list them all, but here are three common kinds of damages that are available to an injured plaintiff:
1. Nominal Damages
Nominal damages are the judicial equivalent of a slap on the wrist. When a party is awarded nominal damages, the award will usually be something like $1.00—yes, one dollar. A court will award nominal damages when, though there’s been a technical legal wrong, it didn’t result in damages. For example, if someone walks through her neighbor’s yard without the neighbor’s permission, but doesn’t cause any damage to the property, the neighbor could sue for trespass. If the neighbor prevails, the court would award nominal damages, but nothing else.
2. Compensatory Damages
An award of compensatory damages is meant to make a party whole for any harm caused by the wrong of another. This is actually a very broad class of different measures of damages. For example, in a personal injury action, the amount of money that the injured party paid for medical expenses to treat his or her injury could be awarded as compensatory damages. Damages for pain and suffering would also qualify as compensatory damages, even though it can be difficult to pin down a dollar amount that would compensate for such injuries. In the context of a breach of contract, compensatory damages would be the value that the non-breaching party expected to receive under the contract, less the value actually received. The unifying theory behind these different measures is that they are designed to make the injured party whole.
3. Punitive Damages
As the name suggests, punitive damages are meant to punish a party for particularly egregious behavior. When punitive damages are allowed, the jury will get to hear evidence of the wrongdoer’s wealth, because that is one factor they will consider in fixing the amount of punitive damages. If they were to set the amount too low, a wealthy wrongdoer would not be dissuaded from engaging in such behavior in the future. However, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, an award of punitive damages can be so great as to violate the Due Process Clauses of the U.S. Constitution.
Of these three kinds of damages, compensatory damages are the most common. If the only damage award available to a plaintiff is nominal damages, then the plaintiff is unlikely to want to waste the time and money necessary to win a lawsuit. While punitive damages would have the opposite effect, making filing a lawsuit more attractive to a plaintiff, they are only available in certain kinds of cases.