Special Damages vs. General Damages in Personal Injury

When navigating the complexities of a personal injury case, understanding the nuances of damages awarded is crucial. This blog post aims to demystify two critical types of damages: special and general damages. These terms can often be confusing, but they play a pivotal role in how compensation is calculated and awarded. We will delve into what each type of damage entails, how they differ, and the significance of each in the realm of personal injury law. By the end of this article, you’ll have a clearer understanding of these concepts, aiding you in your journey towards fair compensation.

What are Special Damages?

Special damages in personal injury cases refer to compensatory damages that are quantifiable and directly attributable to the injury. This includes expenses like medical bills, rehabilitation costs, lost wages, and any other out-of-pocket expenses incurred due to the injury. Essentially, these are costs that can be precisely calculated and proven with bills, receipts, and employment records.

SPECIAL DAMAGES VS GENERAL DAMAGESImagine you’ve been in a car accident, resulting in a broken leg. The costs for your hospital stay, surgery, physical therapy, and even the income you lost while recovering are all special damages. They’re tangible and measurable.

The key to successfully claiming these damages lies in meticulous documentation. Keeping a detailed record of all expenses and losses is vital. This not only includes current bills but also future expenses related to the injury. For instance, if your injury requires ongoing physical therapy or adaptations to your home, these projected costs should be factored into your claim.

What Are The Special Damages for Personal Injury?

Special damages in the context of personal injury law refer to the economic losses that a plaintiff incurs as a result of an injury. These are quantifiable costs directly resulting from the injury and typically include:

  1. Medical Expenses: This is often the most significant component of special damages. It includes the cost of emergency room visits, hospital stays, surgeries, medications, doctor’s appointments, physical therapy, and any other medical treatments required because of the injury. It also encompasses future medical expenses if the injury leads to long-term or permanent disability.
  2. Lost Wages: If the injury has caused the victim to miss work, the lost income during that period is recoverable as special damages. This includes not only the salary or hourly wages lost but also lost bonuses, overtime, and other forms of compensation.
  3. Loss of Earning Capacity: If the injury results in a long-term impact on the victim’s ability to earn, compensation for the loss of future earning potential can be claimed. This requires a more complex calculation, often involving expert testimony, to estimate the impact on the victim’s career trajectory.
  4. Property Damage: If any personal property was damaged as a result of the incident causing the injury (such as in a car accident), the cost of repairing or replacing this property can be included in special damages.
  5. Other Out-of-Pocket Expenses: This can include a wide range of costs directly related to the injury, such as travel expenses for medical appointments, costs for hiring help or home care services, and any other necessary expenditures that wouldn’t have been incurred if not for the injury.

In personal injury cases, it’s crucial for the injured party to keep detailed records and receipts of all these expenses. This documentation is essential for accurately calculating and proving the extent of the special damages in a legal claim or lawsuit.

What are General Damages?

Unlike special damages, general damages are intangible and not easily quantifiable. They cover the non-economic losses you suffer as a result of your injury, such as pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of enjoyment of life, and physical disfigurement or impairment.

These damages are subjective and vary significantly from one case to another. For example, suppose the same car accident that broke your leg also left you with chronic pain and anxiety about driving. These impacts on your daily life and mental well-being are encompassed by general damages.

Quantifying these damages can be challenging, as they don’t come with a receipt. Instead, they require a careful consideration of how the injury has impacted your quality of life. Factors such as the severity and permanence of the injury, the pain and discomfort experienced, and the extent of the emotional trauma are all considered.

Legal representation plays a crucial role here. An experienced personal injury lawyer can help articulate and quantify these intangible losses effectively. They can draw upon similar cases and expert testimony to build a compelling argument for the value of your general damages.

In summary, while special damages are about the tangible costs of your injury, general damages revolve around the more subjective, emotional impacts. Both are essential in ensuring you receive fair compensation for all aspects of your injury.

Calculating Damages in Personal Injury Cases

The calculation of damages in personal injury cases is both an art and a science. It involves not only adding up tangible costs but also valuing the intangible, subjective aspects of a victim’s suffering. This process begins with compiling all the expenses incurred — the special damages. This includes medical bills, therapy costs, and lost income, which are relatively straightforward to quantify. However, projecting future costs is equally important. For instance, if an injury results in a long-term disability, future medical care, modifications to living spaces, and loss of earning capacity must be considered.

But how do we place a value on the pain and suffering, the emotional distress, or the loss of enjoyment of life? These general damages are more abstract. Lawyers often use methods like the ‘multiplier method,’ where special damages are multiplied by a number (usually between 1.5 and 5) based on the severity and impact of the injury. The more severe and life-altering the injury, the higher the multiplier.

Gathering and presenting evidence is crucial. Medical records, expert testimonies, and personal diaries detailing the injury’s impact on daily life can be influential. This comprehensive approach ensures that all aspects of the injury, both economic and non-economic, are accounted for in the claim.

Legal Representation and Damages

Navigating the complexities of a personal injury claim without legal expertise can be daunting. An experienced personal injury lawyer not only helps in accurately assessing and articulating damages but also in navigating the legal process. They understand the intricacies of how insurance companies work and are adept at negotiating to ensure fair compensation.

Consider a scenario where an insurance company offers an initial settlement. Without legal expertise, it might be challenging to determine if this offer adequately covers all current and future expenses and losses. A personal injury lawyer can assess the offer in the context of the entire impact of the injury — both special and general damages — and negotiate for a settlement that truly compensates for the injury’s full impact.

In addition, a lawyer can help in situations where liability is disputed or where the case needs to go to trial. Their expertise in collecting and presenting evidence can make a significant difference in the outcome of a claim.

Settlements and Court Awards

When it comes to personal injury claims, settlements and court awards are two distinct paths to obtaining compensation. Settlements are agreements reached outside of court, often through negotiations between the injured party and the insurance company. In contrast, court awards are the result of a trial, where a judge or jury determines the amount of compensation.

Settlements are more common, as they are less time-consuming and expensive than going to trial. However, they may not always offer the best compensation. Insurance companies often aim to settle quickly and for as little as possible. This is where having a skilled attorney becomes invaluable — they can negotiate effectively to ensure the settlement is fair and comprehensive.

In cases where a fair settlement cannot be reached, going to trial might be the best option. While this process is longer and more complex, it sometimes results in higher compensation, especially in cases of severe or egregious injuries. Here, the role of a personal injury lawyer is critical in presenting a compelling case to the judge or jury.


In summary, understanding the nuances of special and general damages in personal injury cases is vital for ensuring fair compensation. From meticulous documentation of expenses to articulating the intangible impacts of an injury, each step plays a crucial role in the outcome of a personal injury claim. Legal representation is invaluable in navigating this complex process, whether negotiating a settlement or advocating in a courtroom.

Damages FAQ

What are 3 types of damages?

In legal contexts, particularly in personal injury and contract law, there are generally three main types of damages that can be awarded:

  1. Compensatory Damages: These are intended to compensate the injured party for the loss or injury they have suffered. Compensatory damages are further divided into two subcategories:
    • Special Damages (Economic Damages): These cover quantifiable losses such as medical expenses, lost wages, and property damage. They are specific, measurable costs incurred due to the injury or breach of contract.
    • General Damages (Non-Economic Damages): These address non-tangible losses, including pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of enjoyment of life, and loss of consortium. General damages are more subjective and are not easily quantified.
  2. Punitive Damages: Unlike compensatory damages, which aim to make the plaintiff whole, punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant for particularly egregious, malicious, or reckless behavior and to deter others from similar misconduct. These are not awarded in every case and are usually reserved for situations where the defendant’s actions are found to be especially harmful or offensive.
  3. Nominal Damages: These are a symbolic form of damage awarded when the plaintiff has suffered a legal wrong or a breach of rights but has not incurred substantial actual damages or financial loss. Nominal damages are typically a very small amount of money, acknowledging the wrongdoing without providing significant compensation.

Each type of damage serves a different purpose in the legal system, from compensating the victim to punishing the wrongdoer and symbolically recognizing an infringement of rights. The applicability and calculation of these damages depend on the specifics of each case and the applicable laws.

What is the difference between general damages and actual damages?

The difference between general damages and actual damages lies primarily in the nature and quantifiability of the losses for which compensation is sought in a legal context.

  1. Actual Damages: Actual damages, also often referred to as compensatory damages, are intended to compensate the plaintiff for the actual and direct losses they have incurred. They are quantifiable and can be specifically itemized. Actual damages include both:
    • Special Damages: These are economic losses that can be precisely calculated, such as medical expenses, lost wages, and property damage. They represent out-of-pocket expenses directly stemming from the injury or harm suffered.
    • General Damages: Although part of actual damages, general damages cover the non-economic, more subjective losses like pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of enjoyment of life, and loss of consortium.
  2. General Damages: As mentioned above, general damages are a subset of actual damages, specifically addressing the non-economic, intangible losses resulting from an injury or harm. Unlike special damages, general damages are not easily quantifiable because they deal with subjective experiences and impacts, such as:
    • Pain and suffering.
    • Emotional distress.
    • Loss of enjoyment of life.
    • Loss of reputation (in defamation cases).
    • Loss of companionship or affection (such as in wrongful death cases).

The key distinction is that actual damages encompass both the tangible, economic losses (special damages) and the intangible, non-economic losses (general damages), whereas general damages refer specifically to the latter category. In a legal claim, a plaintiff may seek compensation for both types of damages to fully cover the breadth of their losses and suffering resulting from the defendant’s actions.

Are punitive damages special or general?

Punitive damages are neither special nor general damages. They form a distinct category of damages with a different purpose compared to special and general damages. Here’s a brief overview of each to clarify their differences:

  1. Special Damages: These are compensatory damages that cover specific economic losses incurred by the plaintiff. Examples include medical bills, lost wages, and property damage. Special damages are quantifiable and directly related to the financial impact of the harm or injury suffered.
  2. General Damages: Also a type of compensatory damage, these cover non-economic losses such as pain and suffering, emotional distress, and loss of enjoyment of life. General damages are less tangible and more subjective, focusing on the personal impact of the injury or harm.
  3. Punitive Damages: Unlike special and general damages, punitive damages are not meant to compensate the plaintiff for any loss (whether economic or non-economic). Instead, they are awarded to punish the defendant for particularly egregious, malicious, or reckless behavior and to deter similar conduct in the future. Punitive damages are awarded over and above compensatory damages and are not linked to the specific harms suffered by the plaintiff.

In summary, while special and general damages are compensatory in nature, aiming to make the plaintiff whole, punitive damages serve a different purpose of punishment and deterrence, and they are not categorized as either special or general.

What is the punitive damages rule?

The punitive damages rule refers to the legal principles and guidelines governing the award of punitive damages in a lawsuit. Punitive damages are meant to punish the defendant for particularly egregious, malicious, or reckless behavior and to deter similar conduct in the future. Here are some key aspects of the punitive damages rule:

  1. Exceptional Circumstances: Punitive damages are not awarded in every case. They are typically reserved for situations where the defendant’s conduct was exceptionally harmful or displayed a blatant disregard for the safety and rights of others.
  2. Standard of Proof: In many jurisdictions, the plaintiff must prove the defendant’s egregious conduct by a higher standard of proof than the “preponderance of the evidence” standard used in most civil cases. Often, a “clear and convincing evidence” standard is applied.
  3. Proportionality: The U.S. Supreme Court has set guidelines to ensure that punitive damages are not excessively disproportionate to the actual harm. While no precise formula exists, the Court has suggested that punitive damages typically should not exceed four times the amount of compensatory damages, though this can vary based on the specifics of the case.
  4. Constitutional Limits: The Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution imposes limits on punitive damages. The Supreme Court has held that excessively high punitive damages can violate due process, as they become arbitrary and unfair.
  5. Factors for Consideration: When determining the amount of punitive damages, courts often consider factors such as the reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct, the ratio of punitive damages to actual harm inflicted, and comparisons with penalties in similar cases.
  6. State Law Variations: Laws and limits on punitive damages can vary significantly by state. Some states have caps on the amount of punitive damages that can be awarded, while others may have specific statutes that outline when and how punitive damages can be sought.

It’s important to note that punitive damages are a complex area of law and can be highly case-specific. The application of these rules can vary significantly depending on the jurisdiction and the unique circumstances of each case.