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As Americans, we have the good fortune to live in a society where we can turn to the courts for compensation when others inflict harm on us. Rather than resorting to violence or simply accepting our fates, we can right the wrongs done to us by suing for money damages. It is a remarkable feature of our lives that seldom gets appreciated for the profound and largely positive influence it has on our collective sense of security and community.
With the help of an experienced personal injury lawyer, anyone can hold an individual, corporation, institution, or government entity—no matter how large and powerful—accountable for wrongful conduct that results in personal injuries and losses. Let’s take a look at how the system works.
The first thing to understand about suing for damages when someone causes you a personal injury is that, by and large, money constitutes the primary remedy for any kind of harm done to you. Sometimes, you may have the option of seeking other kinds of relief from a court; such as, for example, a court order directing the party who harmed you to take specific actions. However, most of the time, suing for damages means translating the pain, trauma, and difficulty you suffered into dollars and cents that the wrongdoer should have to pay you as compensation.
It is not a perfect system. Money cannot stop your body from aching. It cannot cure an illness or take away a disability that someone else’s wrongful actions caused. It will never heal the agony of losing a loved one to a fatal accident. It does not even necessarily satisfy the basic human instinct for taking revenge on those who do us harm.
Monetary damages do, however, serve obviously useful purposes. They help pay for care that promotes a person’s physical and emotional healing. They supply the means to purchase equipment or to renovate living spaces to accommodate disabilities. They replace lost income. And, they exact a price for the wrongful behavior that caused your injuries, helping to ensure that those actions do not re-occur and do harm to others.
Damages come in three basic forms. Here is an overview of each of them.
The most common money damages in a personal injury lawsuit consist of those that compensate you for the harm you suffered, known as compensatory damages.
We separate these damages into two broad categories:
Broadly speaking, lawyers speak of compensatory damages in terms of “making you whole.” Of course, that is not entirely accurate because, as we said, money does not literally replace your health, bodily functions, or the life of a loved one. Still, the basic function of compensatory damages is to use the money to return you, as best as possible, to your position before your personal injury. As such, most compensatory damages are not taxable.
Compensatory damages have a long history and tradition in the law. Over centuries, U.S. (and before them, British) courts have explored, explained, categorized, and authorized the types and ranges of compensatory damages you might seek for your injuries.
For the most part, no single law exists that says: “You get compensated for these specific things, and can receive this specific amount of money, in a personal injury case.”
Instead, lawyers, judges, and insurance companies rely on that long history of court decisions in personal injury cases, called the common law, for guidance when it comes to determining what damages you can ask for and obtain in your specific circumstances.
Except, that is, when a statute specifically lays out exactly what damages you may seek for the harm you suffered.
Sometimes, legislatures focus their attention on a specific type of harm that people can suffer, or a specific type of harmful action that can cause personal injuries, and devise a law to address them. Often, those laws (or statutes) prescribe specific amounts of damages for people who suffer from a particular injury or wrongful conduct the law seeks to address. We call these statutory damages.
Statutory damages take many forms and seek to serve various purposes. Legislatures may, for example, dictate statutory damages in cases where injured people would otherwise have a difficult time proving the harm they suffered. Or, legislatures may enact laws containing statutory damages to limit the types or sizes of compensatory damages an injured person might receive. Sometimes, statutory damages have a purely punitive purpose (see below). Statutory damages may or may not be taxable, depending on their purpose.
Whatever the case, experienced personal injury lawyers know when and how statutory damages may come into play in a personal injury case. They take the possibility of those damages into account in crafting legal strategies designed to obtain maximum compensation for their clients. In some cases, that means presenting a case in a manner that triggers statutory damages, whereas in others it may mean trying to avoid the application of a statutory damages law because, for example, it caps the amount of money an injured person can receive.
The third broad type of damages a personal injury victim may seek to obtain in a lawsuit are called exemplary or punitive damages. Think of these as the opposite of compensatory damages. Instead of making the injured person whole, they punish the party who caused the injury and deter that party, and others, from engaging in harmful conduct in the future.
Courts in California have the authority to award exemplary damages when the injured person’s lawyer proves “by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant has been guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice.”
Let’s unpack what that means under California law.
In short, to obtain exemplary or punitive damages for your personal injury, your lawyer must show that the at-fault party engaged in the worst kinds of wrongful conduct. That is not an easy task, which is why California courts only award exemplary or punitive damages in the minority of cases. Most punitive damages are taxable.
Now that we have covered the purpose of damages and types of damages that exist, let’s turn to how the victim of a personal injury sues for them.
Suing, in the vast majority of cases, means filing a lawsuit in a court that has jurisdiction over the accident or incident that led to the personal injury. For example, an experienced personal injury lawyer would normally (although not always) file a lawsuit on behalf of a client injured in a San Diego traffic accident in San Diego County Superior Court or the federal United States District Court for the Southern District of California.
Filing a lawsuit, however, is not simply something you do off-the-cuff. Building and presenting a winning lawsuit takes time, know-how, and resources, which is why personal injury victims should always seek help from an attorney whose law practice focuses on personal injury matters, who has years of experience representing clients in that area, and who can point to a track record of success in similar personal injury cases.
The specific steps lawyers take to build and execute a case for personal injury damages tend to vary based on the particulars of the individual circumstances.
However, in general, they often include:
Settlement negotiation. The vast majority of personal injury lawsuits for damages settle out of court. A settlement is an agreement to resolve a legal claim. In the typical settlement, the injured party receives monetary damages for releasing the at-fault party (and its insurance company) from further liability. Skilled personal injury lawyers have a keen sense of when and how to conduct negotiations to achieve the highest possible settlements for their clients.
To learn more about suing for damages in a personal injury matter that has affected your life or that of a loved one, contact an experienced attorney today for a free consultation.
John Gomez founded the firm alone in 2005. Today, John acts as President and Lead Trial Attorney. He has been voted by his peers as a top ten San Diego litigator in three separate fields: Personal Injury, Insurance and Corporate Litigation. Since 2000, he has recovered over $800 million in settlements and verdicts for his clients with more than 160 separate recoveries of one million dollars or more. A prolific trial lawyer, John has tried to jury verdict more than 60 separate cases.
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