The legal term “damages” refers to a sum of money that may be awarded by a court of law to an individual or entity as compensation for property damage, a physical injury, or other loss caused by another person’s actions. Damages that a court may award are divided into two basic types, “compensatory,” and “punitive.” Compensatory damages return the plaintiff in a civil lawsuit to his financial position prior to the act, and punitive damages are sometimes awarded as a way to punish the defendant. To explore this concept, consider the following damages definition.

Definition of Damages


  1. The estimated money equivalent for harm, damage, or injury sustained due to the act of another.


1250-1300        Middle English

What are Civil Damages

In the legal system, civil damages are an award of money given to an individual as compensation for a loss or injury caused by the act of another, whether intentional or negligent. Rules governing the type and amount of civil damages that may be awarded vary by jurisdiction, as well as the type of claim presented by the plaintiff. There are many types of civil damages, though they are generally categorized as either compensatory or punitive in nature.

Compensatory Damages

Compensatory damages compensate an individual for losses caused by the defendant. These are further broken down into three sub-categories:

  1. Special Damages – financial losses directly caused by the defendant’s actions, including such things as medical bills, ambulance bills, lost wages, and costs to repair or replace damaged property.
  2. General Damages – money awarded for things for which the value is more difficult to determine. These include such things as pain and suffering, mental anguish, future problems from an injury, shortened lifespan, loss of reputation, loss of companionship, or loss of anticipated business.

For example:

Don leaves the bar after having a “few drinks” with the guys. He runs a stop sign, plowing into a car driven by Angela, severely damaging the car, and seriously injuring its driver. Don was arrested at the scene of the accident for driving under the influence (DUI), after his blood alcohol level tested at 1.8 percent, more than twice the legal limit.

Angela hires an attorney to file a civil lawsuit against Don. In the lawsuit, Angela asks the court to award special damages in the amount of $141,000 to cover her medical bills and lost wages for the weeks she was off recovering from her injuries. She requests additional special damages in the amount of $11,500 to cover the value of her totaled car. General damages are requested in the amount of $5 00,000 for pain and suffering, and the humiliation of living with a large, permanent scar on her face.

When the matter goes to trial, the amount of special damages will be proven by receipts, bills, and other documents. General damages, however, are subjective, and may be awarded in an amount the judge deems appropriate.

Punitive Damages

Punitive damages, also referred to as “exemplary damages,” serve two purposes: (1) to punish the defendant, and (2) to set a public example. Not every defendant or situation warrants the imposition of punitive damages. These are generally ordered only when a defendant has acted in a blatantly negligent, malicious, or grossly reckless manner, those actions being the cause of the plaintiff’s damages. In some situations, the amount of punitive damages may be greater than the amount of compensatory damages. This might occur in such cases as discrimination or sexual harassment.

For example, in the above case, the judge may order Don to pay punitive damages to Angela because he knowingly drove his car while under the influence of alcohol, fully understanding that he could cause serious injury or even death to another person.

Damages Awarded in Real Life Cases

While the award of damages is the backbone of civil lawsuits filed every single day in every jurisdiction of the country, there are some cases that stand out, whether due to the subject matter, or simply do to the large award of damages granted by the court.

Punitive Damages for Sexual Harassment and Discrimination in the Workplace

In 2012, a lawsuit was filed against the Catholic Healthcare West hospital by a physician’s assistant who claimed to be the victim of sexual harassment and retaliation. In the penalty phase of the trial, the federal district court in Sacramento awarded the plaintiff nearly $43 million in compensatory damages, and another $125 million in punitive damages. The astronomical amount of punitive damages was believed to be the largest ever awarded to a single victim of workplace harassment in U.S. history.

Pain and Suffering Damages for Slip and Fall Accident

In September 1998, Shelton Stewart slipped on pigeon excrement as he was climbing the subway stairs, and fell. Steward sustained several serious spinal injuries, for which he was hospitalized for a month, and endured a number of spinal surgeries. Stewart sued the transit authority, claiming the city was negligent in allowing the stairs to remain slippery. After years of litigation, a jury determined that Stewart was 20 percent responsible for his injuries, and the transit authority was 80 percent responsible.

The jury awarded the plaintiff damages for pain and suffering in the amount of $4.7 million. This amount was added to the plaintiff’s medical expenses and loss of earnings, the total of which was reduced by 20 percent for the plaintiff’s comparative fault.

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.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.