General Damages (Hedonic Damages)
General damages, sometimes referred to as "hedonic damages" are often the big ticket item in a personal injury case. This category includes the loss of enjoyment to life. Sometimes referred to as "pain and suffering" this is the non monetary part of the case, but includes physical and emotional harm, loss of consortium, total and partial disability, impairment of physical or mental capacity, disfigurement, residual symptoms and permanency. These damages generally can not be proven monetarily down to the penny, and are left to the jury or judge, in a bench trial. However, there must be evidence to support a damage award, or it can be overturned or reduced.
These are the specific, verifiable money damages directly related to the case. This includes lost wages, medical bills, cost to replace damaged property and impaired earning capacity. These damages must be documented down to the dollar and related to the accident. If they can not be documented they are out of the case.
In a personal injury case, these are not the most common damages, but they do occur. For example, if an insurance company engages in an unfair and deceptive practice in the settlement process, state statutes can impose, in the right case, triple damages, attorney fees and costs of suit. This sounds great, but courts reserve application for the most egregious of cases.
Nominal damages occur where the judge or jury give the plaintiff a victory, but only a symbolic award of damages. Juries have come back with a plaintiff's verdict, giving the injured person a victory in the case, but then an award of a dollar, or an award restricted to the amount of the medical bills. It happens.
Not intended to compensate the plaintiff, punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant. These are very rare and not even allowed in many states. In a personal injury case, punitives are generally limited to statutory damages in a claim of unfair and deceptive practices as discussed above.
In the USA, legal costs are borne by the litigants themselves. Under what is called the American Rule, a party is generally not entitled to an award for its attorney fees. This is not so in some other countries, where the loser is ordered to pay legal fees for the other side. There are rare exceptions in the USA where, by statute, fees can be shifted for example if a claim is found to be frivolous or brought in bad faith.
This is not an element of damages, but a requirement that each element of damages be directly related to the injury in the case. For example, impaired earnings claims must be supported. Anyone can claim they would have been the next Donald Trump or Bill Gates. However, a claim that future earnings potential was diminished by the accident, distinguished from the hard and fast lost wage claim, requires proof that one's education, training, experiences and actual work history, by a preponderance of the evidence, would have been in a certain neighborhood but for the fact of the accident.