The term pecuniary refers to something paid or given in money, or a monetary interest in something. For example, a person who owns stock in a company is said to have a pecuniary interest in the company, because his investment, loss, and gains can be measured in dollars. A person could receive a pecuniary award from a lawsuit, or be given a pecuniary punishment (a fine) for violating a statute. To explore this concept, consider the following pecuniary definition.

Definition of Pecuniary




  1. relating to, or in the form of, money
  2. consisting of, given, or exacted in money, or in monetary payments


1495-1505 Latin pecūniārius

What is Pecuniary in the Legal System

As a legal term, pecuniary refers to something that is in the form of money. People can have a pecuniary interest in something, meaning their interest can be measured in dollars. Violation of a certain ordinance or statute may have a pecuniary punishment, rather than jail time. In addition, people are awarded pecuniary damages every day in civil lawsuits across the country.

Pecuniary Damages

Damages are awarded to a plaintiff in a civil lawsuit to compensate him for financial loss or pain and suffering resulting from another person’s actions. Pecuniary damages specifically refers to damages awarded that can be measured in dollars, rather than, say, harm to someone’s reputation. When a person is seeking pecuniary damages in a lawsuit, the court considers the actual monetary loss sustained by that person in determining the amount of the award.

Things considered pecuniary damages include such losses as:

  • Costs to repair or replace personal property, such as a vehicle, bicycle, or fence
  • Medical bills
  • Lost wages

Example of Pecuniary Damages

Jo owns a cattle ranch, where herds of cattle roam, grazing, over her 200 acres of land. When Matthew and his friends climbed through her fence one day after they had been drinking, and shot two of her steers, Jo demanded he pay the cattle’s worth. Jo finally filed a civil lawsuit asking for an award of $5,000 for the loss of two steers. If Jo wins her case, the court will award pecuniary damages, which means Matthew will be ordered to pay Jo in cash, rather than be ordered to replace the cattle, on which a dollar amount can be placed, relative to the current market for cattle.

Pecuniary Award

A pecuniary award is the actual award of money to pay for losses or damages that can be measured or quantified in terms of dollars. For instance, a person may petition the court to stop a neighbor from cutting down a tree on the property line. Such an order does just that, order the neighbor to not cut down the tree. There could be no pecuniary award in such a case, as there are no damages or loss that can be expressed in terms of money.

As another example, a tragic car accident that resulted in the death of one driver may be brought to court in a civil lawsuit by the victim’s family. Expenses incurred by the family, such as replacement of the car, medical bills, and burial expenses may be ordered as a pecuniary award. This is because these things come with a price tag, quantified in terms of a monetary amount. The court may also award damages for the family’s loss of association with their loved one, emotional distress, and wrongful death.

Example of Pecuniary Award

David’s bicycle was damaged when a delivery person ran into it as he was parking part way onto the curb where the bicycle was locked. David sues for $5,000: $2,200 for the price of the bicycle, and $2,800 for emotional distress. The judge may make a pecuniary award for David’s damages, though the amount would be based on the bicycle’s current value just before the accident, not the amount needed to replace the bike with a new one.

Emotional distress is not a pecuniary loss, meaning that it cannot be quantified in terms of money. In most cases, the destruction of personal property does not qualify for a pecuniary award for emotional distress.

The Issue of Pecuniary Award in Railroad Accident

In 1897, Robert Walker, a 25-year old employee of the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company, was killed while attempting to pull a passenger train whose engine had failed to a station some miles away. At one point the track and the bed it was on failed to hold the engine Walker was operating, causing the engine to derail and pitch down an embankment. While the other men in the engine managed to jump free, Walker went down with it, and was killed.

Robert Walker’s family filed a civil lawsuit against the railroad company seeking damages for the loss of their husband and father due to the negligence of his employer. The jury decided in favor of the plaintiffs, with a pecuniary award of $40,000, which is equivalent to over $1 million in 2015.

The railroad company appealed the jury’s decision, based on, among other things, the instructions given to the jury by the judge before they retired to deliberate on the case. The railroad company argued on appeal that damages cannot be awarded for the fact that Walker was kind and affectionate, and a good father. The appellate court pointed out that, while only a pecuniary award (monetary award) could be made in this case, the jury could not be required to discount the victim’s social and domestic relations.

No award could be made as solace for the family’s loss, but the court held that the pecuniary value of the support Walker provided as head of his family could not be limited to the dollar amount of his wages, and that the man’s daily attentions, services, and care on their behalf could be considered. The court held that the plaintiffs were entitled to compensation for the “substantial and material benefits which they would have received from the deceased if he had lived.”

In this case, the court held that a pecuniary award may be made in some cases where the damages simply cannot be quantified by a dollar amount. The loss of a husband and father does not have a price tag, but a monetary award may be made nonetheless. These issues and awards are left substantially to the discretion of judge and jury.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Appeal – A legal proceeding in which a case is brought before a higher court for review of the decision of a lower court.
  • Appellate Court – A court having jurisdiction to review decisions of a trial-level or other lower court.
  • Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.

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