General Damages

General damages amount to financial compensation that is issued by a court to compensate for injuries suffered, for which no real dollar value can be calculated. Examples of general damages can include financial compensation for pain and suffering, or for a shortened life expectancy. General damages may also arise from a breach of contract claim. To explore this concept, consider the following general damages definition.

Definition of General Damages


  1. Financial compensation issued by a court to compensate for a breach of contract, or for injuries suffered for which no dollar value can be calculated.

Origin of Damages

1250-1300       Old French dam  < Latin damnum  (damage, fine)

What are Damages

Damages are compensatory monies that are awarded to a plaintiff who has suffered a loss as the result of someone else’s wrongdoing. This might occur through something like a personal injury, or breach of contract. Those who are involved in car accidents or who have suffered a physical setback due to medical malpractice are typically entitled to receive damages in a court of law.

Damages are also awarded in cases pertaining to wrongful death. However, the damages awarded in these cases are typically unique to the circumstances of each case.

There are three kinds of damages: general damages, special damages, and punitive damages. General and special damages are compensatory damages. This means that they work to compensate the plaintiff for pain and suffering and financial loss. Punitive damages, on the other hand, are awarded to punish the defendant for his negligence or otherwise reckless behavior.

What are General Damages

General damages are losses that are difficult to quantify, or which cannot be specifically proven with a receipt. For instance, the cost of medical bills after a terrible accident can be proven with receipts from medical providers. Pain and suffering resulting from serious injuries cannot. As an example, general damages in a breach of contract action may be awarded for losses that cannot be readily quantified, such as a presumed loss of business because one party breached the contract.

Example of General Damages

The concept of “pain and suffering” refers to the physical pain and emotional distress that a person goes through after being involved in an accident of some kind. The notion of emotional distress can refer to several varieties of mental anguish, including depression, anxiety, and insomnia. It is understandable that, while pain and suffering may be torturous and life-long, it is also not easy to pin a dollar amount on. However, the courts will do their best when attempting to calculate an amount that can help make that person feel whole again.

For example:

Dorothy was injured in a car accident, which left her with lingering back pain. This pain interfered with Dorothy’s ability to sleep through the night, leaving her more exhausted every day. It also rendered her unable to bend down and pick up her young children, and to take care of such daily tasks as cleaning and shopping. Her injuries also have significantly impacted the physical intimacy she might share with her husband. Thus, Dorothy grew bitter, anxious, and depressed.

Unlike the medical bills that Dorothy had to pay out of pocket, there is no clear way to put a price on the emotional distress, and loss of consortium, Dorothy suffered because of her accident. The courts would review Dorothy’s symptoms associated with both her physical pain and emotional distress, including their duration and severity, to determine an appropriate award of damages for pain and suffering.

General damages are a subset of compensatory damages. Compensatory damages are monetary awards granted by the court to a claimant as compensation for his loss or injury suffered as the result of another person’s breach of duty, such as negligence or a breach of contract. The wrongdoer is held liable to pay damages when the claimant can prove that the wrongdoer’s actions led to the claimant’s loss or injury. Once this claim has been successfully proven, then it is up to the courts to determine the amount of compensation that is appropriate.

General Damages or Special Damages

General damages are not easily measured. The general damages that a court ultimately awards are determined based on the individual circumstances of the case. For instance, judges in the U.S. typically award between three and four times the cost of a person’s total medical bills in cases involving pain and suffering. Typically, general damages are awarded to compensate for a party’s physical or emotional pain and suffering. Other situations that would qualify for general damages are those involving a loss of reputation, the loss of enjoyment of life, and disfigurement.

Special damages, on the other hand, cover losses that can be proven with receipts, bills, or estimates. For instance, in a car accident, the losses suffered by the plaintiff might be in the form of:

  • damage to his vehicle
  • damage to his laptop computer that was in the front seat
  • medical bills for his broken leg
  • the number of days work he missed because of his injuries

All of these damages can be stated in a provable dollar amount by providing the court with bills and receipts, as well as a statement from the plaintiff’s employer as to his wage, and number of days missed. These are called special damages.

General Damages Example Involving a Car Accident

In 1965, Carl Beagle sustained injuries in a car accident when a car driven by Kenneth Vasold drove over an embankment while rounding a curve. Vasold died from his injuries, and his passengers – Beagle, Beverly Adams, and Elizabeth, Vasold’s wife – were injured. Beagle then sued Elizabeth Vasold for the injuries he sustained in the accident. In his complaint, Beagle requested approximately $61,000 in general damages, as well as additional compensation for his medical expenses, loss of earnings, and the expenses incurred from filing the suit.

The trial court informed Beagle’s attorney in chambers that he would not be allowed to tell the jury the “value of his action in dollars” in a lump sum because “[s]uch is not evidence.” Of course, counsel complied with the court’s directive and based his damages arguments solely on the amount of past and anticipated medical expenses and loss of earnings, as well as Beagle’s injuries.

The jury returned a verdict in Beagle’s favor, but Beagle was unhappy with the significantly lower award of $1,719.48. Beagle felt that the judge was wrong in not allowing his attorney to tell the jury how much money he sought as general damages. He filed a motion for a new trial on the grounds of inadequacy of damages, but the trial court denied his request, so he appealed the decision.

The only issue that was raised on appeal was whether the trial court erred in stopping Beagle’s counsel from stating in his argument to the jury the amount of general damages that Beagle was seeking. The Supreme Court of California agreed that it was wrong to restrict counsel’s arguments in that regard.

The Appellate Court noted that one of the most difficult tasks a jury faces in deciding a personal injury case is determining the amount of money the plaintiff is to be awarded for his pain and suffering, on which no price tag can easily be affixed. Further, the Court stated that there is no method available to the jury to guide it in evaluating damages like these, and that no witnesses are permitted to express their subjective opinion on the matter. The court quoted McCormick, another writer on the subject, who stated:

“Translating pain and anguish into dollars can, at best, be only an arbitrary allowance, and not a process of measurement, and consequently the judge can, in his instructions, give the jury no standard to go by; he can only tell them to allow such amount as in their discretion they may consider reasonable. … The chief reliance for reaching reasonable results in attempting to value suffering in terms of money must be the restraint and common sense of the jury. …”

The Appellate Court ultimately held that the trial court was prejudicial in its decision in awarding Beagle damages and reversed the trial court’s decision. The Appellate Court concluded its decision with the following quote from a related case:

“It has been held that on an appeal from a judgment where the evidence as to liability is ‘overwhelming’ a retrial may be limited to the issue of damages. Where, however, the evidence as to liability is in sharp and substantial conflict, and the damages awarded are so grossly inadequate as to indicate a compromise on the issues of liability and damages, the case should be remanded for a retrial of both issues.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Appellate Court – A court having jurisdiction to review decisions of a trial-level or other lower court.
  • 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.
  • Emotional Distress – A negative emotional reaction, such as anguish, humiliation, or grief, resulting from the conduct of another individual. Also referred to as “mental anguish.”
  • Jury – A group of people sworn to render a verdict in a trial, based on evidence presented.
  • Pain and Suffering – Physical and emotional distress caused by an injury.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
  • Prejudicial – Tending to injure or impair, detrimental or harmful to someone or something.
  • Punitive Damages – Money awarded to the injured party above and beyond their actual damages. Punitive damages are ordered for the purpose of punishing the wrongdoer for outrageous misconduct in a civil matter.