An award of non-economic damages is often the largest award a plaintiff will obtain by a jury. The damages in a personal injury case are determined by the losses incurred by the injured party. Medical bills to treat injuries or the cost of replacing or repairing damaged property are typical types of damages.
However, damages can also include anything that has been used to address injuries directly (such as money) or indirectly (such as time). But how can you evaluate non-economic damages from economic damages?
How To Evaluate Damages in a Personal Injury
To evaluate damages in a personal injury case, you start from the most obvious place: The injured person’s description of their injuries and damages. But sometimes the injured person can’t give an accurate description or evaluation of their damages for several reasons:
- First, the evaluation may depend on whether the injuries are short-term and easily evaluated, versus serious injuries which may result in long term care and ongoing surgeries and treatment.
- Second, the evaluation may depend on an expert’s opinion of how the incident, like a car accident, could have caused the injury and how such an injury could impair a person’s life and require specific forms of treatment.
- Third, the value of a person’s damages depends on the circumstances and evidence that supports the injury. An injured person’s statements or beliefs alone are rarely sufficient to support their pain and suffering, loss of earnings, or their medical expenses.
Ultimately, a personal injury attorney’s role is to help their client in clarifying, explaining, and clearly defining the extent of their client’s injuries and supply the necessary proof or evidence to support those claims.
Evaluating Personal Injury Damages in the State of California
The California Civil Code sets forth the right to “compensatory damages” in an action not arising from a contract. In short, a person who has suffered a personal injury through the negligence of another is entitled to be made whole. This means an injured person should be restored to his or her condition before the injury through a monetary damages award.
Obviously, what makes a person “whole” is different in every case. California distinguishes two categories of “compensatory” damages: General and Special Damages.
Special Damages is what most people refer to as “Economic Damages.” Think of this as all out of pocket expenses or damages incurred by an injured person. For example, medical expenses, property damage, lost earnings. Think of this form of damages as things that can be objectively proven by bills, invoices, receipts, payments, and your wage records.
If injuries result in a person being unable to work, they might be eligible for compensation for medical expenses and lost income. There’s even a chance you may receive compensation for lost future earnings, known as loss of earning capacity, if your injuries prevent you from working in the future.
Economic damages are easy to spot and figure out how to compensate. But, what about those you cannot put a price tag on?
Non-Economic Damages Vs. Economic Damages
General Damages are generally referred to as “Non-Economic Damages.” Think of these as damages you generally have no set price tag, such as pain, suffering, and emotional distress. For example, while it is easy to determine what your medical expenses are (your medical bills), there is no invoice or set standard for the monetary amount that will compensate someone for being in a lot of pain, being unable to walk, or losing a loved one.
Getting compensation for non-economic damages is quite difficult for people to comprehend because people generally don’t think of what a life free of pain actually worth monetarily.
Serious injuries following a car accident, dog bit, or slip and fall involve these intangible items like pain and suffering. This includes disfigurement, disability, susceptibility to future injuries, and impaired enjoyment of life. An injured person is entitled to compensation for the impairment in their ability to “enjoy life” as they could have before the injury.
Examples of impairment to enjoyment to life generally includes things like:
(1) Impairment in ability to do routine activities like dressing yourself, bathing yourself, feeding yourself, driving yourself, walking, etc.
(2) Impairment in ability to do or enjoy recreational or social activities, like dancing, bowling, hiking, jogging, and other physical recreational activities.
(3) Impairment in ability to do normal family or household services, like gardening, cleaning, cooking, repairs, etc.
(4) Impairment in ability to do or enjoy hobbies, like playing an instrument, writing, painting, etc.
(5) Impairment in ability to provide care or otherwise interact with family, which includes playing with your kids, traveling with your family, of impairment on sexual capacity.
But, how do we put a dollar amount on these activities? A unique way to think of non-economic harm is by asking yourself, “what are my non-economic assets?”
For example, imagine a person who has a favorite hobby or pastime. For me, it’s Golf. It is one of my favorite things to do and brings me tremendous joy. Golf is a huge “non-economic asset” for me. If you offered me $50,000.00 to never play Golf again, I might not accept it because of the joy I would be prevented from having.
There are countless other “non-economic assets” that require some serious thought. This ranges from, picking up or playing with your child, getting a good night sleep, being able to exercise, etc. The list is almost endless and very different and unique for each person. If I sustained an injury that prevented me from playing golf, holding my kids, getting sleep, and being able to exercise, the value of my non-economic damages would be huge.
To the extent a person’s ability to enjoy their life (or their non-economic assets) is impaired and the time of that impairment, the value of the non-economic loss continues to increase. For example, if a person could continue playing with their child after an accident, but they could only do so with some slight pain, the impairment on that non-economic asset is not as severe as someone who’s injury completely prevents them from playing with their child. Similarly, to the extent a person’s injury prevents them from playing with their child for three months versus three years, the non-economic harm is significantly different.
Ultimately, the jury has discretion in deciding the amount of your general (non-economic) damages. Therefore, it is important for any person following an accident to think about their non-economic assets and how their injuries have impaired or impacted their ability to enjoy their lives.
Is There a Limit on Non-Economic Damages
Generally, there is no cap on the amount of non-economic damages that a jury can award. However, there are some exceptions and limitations. A jury is instructed to simply “use your judgment to decide a reasonable amount based on the evidence and your common sense.” See California Jury Instruction No. 3905A.
Since there is no legal or statutory limit on what “reasonable” compensation would be for pain and suffering arising from a personal injury, it would be very difficult for the court to overturn a jury’s award of non-economic damages. However, in certain circumstances, the court may consider if the evidence simply didn’t justify such a high amount of non-economic damages. For example, a court may consider that a soft tissue injury with only three months of pain does not support a non-economic damages award of $15,000,000.00. The court may consider such a high damages award to be a form of punitive damages to punish the defendant rather than a reasonable value of the plaintiff’s non-economic damages. However, an award of $1,000.000.00 has been upheld as a reasonable award of non-economic damages for a soft tissue injury.
Regardless, it would be extremely difficult for a defendant to strike down an award of non-economic damages that the jury considered to be fair and reasonable in light of the evidence.
What are Punitive Damages and Can I get an Award of Punitive Damages for a Car Accident.
Punitive damages is an award of additional damages to effectively punish the Defendant for serious conduct like “oppression, fraud or malice.” Essentially, conduct that is so reprehensible that a penalty should be awarded to deter the defendant (and all others) from ever engaging in such conduct in the future.
Generally, in a car accident case, the cause of action brought against the defendant is one of “negligence,” which is a claim that the defendant did something that a reasonably careful person would not do in the same situation. See California Jury Instruction No. 401. This is essentially a claim that the car accident occurred because the defendant acted “unreasonably.” Since punitive damages are only awarded for oppression, fraud, or malic, and not for unreasonable conduct, punitive damages are generally not awarded in car accident cases.
Kirakosian Law Can Help You Evaluate Your Damages
Calculating non-economic damages is not only difficult to do, it requires a considerable degree of practice to know how to properly articulate to a defendant, insurance adjuster, or jury. Attempting to do so without an experienced personal injury lawyer is simply not a good idea. If you or someone you love has suffered harm or injuries because of someone else’s intentional or negligent actions, contact a Kirakosian Law to discuss your legal options and to help you calculate and argue for the maximum amount of your non-economic damages.