The Dollars and Cents: An Overview of Damages Awards

By Jenna Chamberlain

This blog post is not a comprehensive summary of the law of damages, but it will provide a brief overview of the types of damages available through the courts and the purpose of damages awards.

What are Damages?

The purpose of lawsuits is to resolve disputes between parties. The courts resolve disputes by awarding remedies. A person, the plaintiff, will bring a lawsuit against another person, the defendant. The plaintiff must then prove they have a cause of action against the defendant and, if they are successful, the court will award them a remedy. There are a wide variety of remedies the court can award. One of the most common remedies is damages, which are monetary awards.

Once the plaintiff has successfully proven their cause of action, the court needs to determine the appropriate dollar amount to give to the plaintiff. There are a wide variety of techniques for calculating damages, and the correct technique will depend on the cause of action, the loss suffered, previous damages awarded by the court in similar cases, and a variety of other considerations.

Types of Damages

Although there are a wide variety of damages, the most common types include:

  • Special damages: These reflect losses a party has suffered which can be quantified in monetary terms and have occurred prior to the time of trial. For example, expenses a party has incurred as a result of the defendant’s actions.
  • General damages: These are amounts which are incapable of precise quantification at the time of trial. There are two types of general damages:
    • Pecuniary general damages: These are amounts which can be quantified in monetary terms but have not yet happened at the time of trial. For example, future expenses the plaintiff expects to incur as a result of the defendant’s actions.
    • Non-pecuniary general damages: These are amounts which reflect a loss suffered by the plaintiff, but the loss is impossible to put into monetary terms. For example, mental distress.
  • Nominal damages: If a party’s rights have been violated, but they did not actually suffer a loss, the court can still order a small damages award. Nominal damages are only available for certain causes of action, for example, assault, trespass, or defamation.
  • Punitive damages: Unlike the other damages, punitive damages are not meant to compensate the plaintiff for a loss. Punitive damages are awarded to punish the defendant. These damages are only awarded if the defendant has acted particularly egregiously and, in the opinion of the court, needs to be punished.

Mitigation

After the court has determined the correct damages award, the court will then consider whether the plaintiff has mitigated or attempted to mitigate their damages. Plaintiffs have an obligation to mitigate their damages, which means they must take steps to prevent loss resulting from the defendant’s actions. If a plaintiff has refused to take any steps to mitigate their damages, the courts may decide to reduce their damages award. For example, if a defendant incorrectly installs a window in a plaintiff’s house, leaving room for water to enter the house, but the plaintiff does not take any steps to fill the gap, the plaintiff might not be compensated for the water damage it could have reasonably prevented if it had mitigated its damages.

Double Compensation

Another important consideration is double compensation. A plaintiff will not be compensated twice for the same loss. This is a factor if multiple defendants caused the same loss, or if there were multiple causes of action which caused the same loss. In these situations, the court will make sure the plaintiff is only compensated once for the actual loss they suffered.

Keep Good Records

In general, the court will do their best to compensate plaintiffs and resolve any harm caused by a defendant. If you believe you could have a cause of action against another person, make sure to keep a record of all losses you have suffered. Keep all receipts, invoices, pictures, emails, notes, and anything else which could help you prove you are entitled to damages.


This post is meant to provide information only and is not intended to provide legal advice. Although every effort has been made to provide current and accurate information, changes to the law may cause the information in this post to be outdated.