When discussing the law, the term “award” can be somewhat misleading as it is not necessarily a recognition, or honor of an achievement. Where the law is concerned, an award is a judicial decision that is made during a court case in which a plaintiff or defendant is given something that they are seeking. For instance, in a civil lawsuit, an individual may seek monetary damages to pay expenses incurred in a car accident for which the other party was responsible. If the judge or jury rules in the favor of that individual, he may award such damages to cover expenses such as medical bills and car repairs. To explore this concept, consider the following award definition.

Definition of Award


  1. A judicial decision after consideration; a judicial sentence


  1. To give as due or merited
  2. To bestow, assign, or appoint by judicial decree or deliberate judgment


1250-1300        Middle English awarden

Award of Damages in a Civil Lawsuit

Generally, in a civil lawsuit, one party, known as the “plaintiff” claims that another party, the “defendant,” has wronged them in some way. In this case, the plaintiff asks a judge or jury to hear the facts about the case and determine whether or not the defendant is liable for any damages. If the judge or jury rules in favor of the plaintiff, an award of damages is issued, which is a sum of money paid in compensation for an injury damage to property, or other loss.

The two main types of damages awarded in a lawsuit include actual damages and punitive damages. Actual damages, also referred to as “compensatory damages,” are those awarded to a plaintiff in order to cover actual financial loss, such as the need to pay medical bills. Punitive damages are awarded simply to punish the wrongdoer, and to deter him from doing the wrong again in the future.

Liebeck v McDonald’s Restaurants

In this 1994 case, 79-year old Stella Liebeck ordered a cup of coffee from her local McDonald’s. After receiving the coffee, she proceeded to spill it in her lap, which resulted in third-degree burns to her pelvic area. She spent over a week in the hospital, and required follow up medical care for two more years. Liebeck hired a lawyer and claimed that the coffee was “defective” since it was hot enough to cause severe burns.

Liebeck filed a civil lawsuit asking for compensation for medical bills and emotional distress. The case went to trial, and the jury issued an award of damages in the amount of $160,000 in compensatory damages and more than $2 million in punitive damages. Punitive damages were awarded because the jury felt that McDonald’s should have known that the temperature at which they kept their coffee was too high, and that it had a high likelihood of causing serious injury.

Award of Child Custody

Not all awards by the court mean a defendant has done something wrong, as many civil cases involve an award of child custody and support. When a couple separates or divorces, the issue of who will have custody of the children is often contested, at which time a judge must make a decision. In making a determination of child custody, the judge must consider what is in the best interests of the children. He will then award child custody to one parent or the other, or he may order joint custody, in which both parents share responsibilities for, and time with the child. The court may also award visitation to the noncustodial parent.

Award of Child Support

When a court makes a determination of child custody, it must also make an order regarding child support, in order to ensure the child is provided for. Each state has specific guidelines for the award of child support, including how much support is to be awarded, and to which parent. Such determination takes into account the respective incomes and expenses of the parents, as well as how much time each parent has custody.

Award of Property in a Divorce

During a divorce the court is often asked to make a determination as to how the marital property is to be divided between the parties. After considering the nature of the marital assets, including debt, and the total monetary value of the assets, the judge will award certain items to each spouse. In some community property states, the award of property gives each spouse as close to half of the total as possible. In other states the rule for division is “equitable,” meaning the judge decides what total of the assets is fair for each spouse.

Award of Spousal Support in a Divorce

In most states, if there is a wide gulf in the financial means of each party to a divorce, the higher earning spouse will be ordered to pay spousal support, also known as “alimony,” to the lower earning spouse. An award of spousal support is made to give the lower earning spouse an opportunity to get an education or training that will enable him or her to become self supporting.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Noncustodial Parent – A parent who, by order of the court, does not have legal or primary physical custody of his or her child.
  • Marital Assets – All property, financial assets, and debt acquired by the couple during the course of the marriage, regardless of who holds title to it.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.