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Damages - Compensatory Damages

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Compensatory Damages

With respect to compensatory damages, a defendant is liable to a plaintiff for all the natural and direct consequences of the defendant's wrongful act. Remote consequences of a defendant's act or omission cannot form the basis for an award of compensatory damages.

Consequential damages, a type of compensatory damages, may be awarded when the loss suffered by a plaintiff is not caused directly or immediately by the wrongful conduct of a defendant, but results from the defendant's action instead. For example, if a defendant carried a ladder and negligently walked into a plaintiff who was a professional model, injuring the plaintiff's face, the plaintiff could recover consequential damages for the loss of income resulting from the injury. These consequential damages are based on the resulting harm to the plaintiff's career. They are not based on the injury itself, which was the direct result of the defendant's conduct.

The measure of compensatory damages must be real and tangible, although it can be difficult to fix the amount with certainty, especially in cases involving claims such as pain and suffering or emotional distress. In assessing the amount of compensatory damages to be awarded, a trier of fact (the jury or, if no jury exists, the judge) must exercise good judgment and common sense, based on general experience and knowledge of economics and social affairs. Within these broad guidelines, the jury or judge has wide discretion to award damages in whatever amount is deemed appropriate, so long as the amount is supported by the evidence in the case.

A plaintiff can recover damages for a number of different injuries suffered as a result of another person's wrongful conduct. The plaintiff can recover for a physical impairment if it results directly from a harm caused by the defendant. The jury, in determining damages, considers the present as well as long-range effects of the disease or injury on the physical well-being of the plaintiff, who must demonstrate the disability with reasonable certainty. Compensatory damages can be awarded for mental impairment, such as a loss of memory or a reduction in intellectual capacity suffered as a result of a defendant's wrongful conduct.

A plaintiff may recover compensatory damages for both present and future physical pain and suffering. Compensation for future pain is permitted when there is a reasonable likelihood that the plaintiff will experience it; the plaintiff is not permitted to recover for future pain and suffering that is speculative. The jury has broad discretion to award damages for pain and suffering, and its judgment will be overturned only if it appears that the jury abused its discretion in reaching the decision.

Mental pain and suffering can be considered in assessing compensatory damages. Mental pain and suffering includes fright, nervousness, grief, emotional trauma, anxiety, humiliation, and indignity. Historically, a plaintiff could not recover damages for mental pain and suffering without an accompanying physical injury. Today, most jurisdictions have modified this rule, allowing recovery for mental anguish alone where the act precipitating the anguish was willful or intentional, or done with extreme care-lessness or recklessness. Ordinarily, mental distress brought on by sympathy for the injury of another will not warrant an award of damages, although some jurisdictions may allow recovery if the injury was caused by the willful or malicious conduct of the defendant. For instance, if an individual wrongfully and intentionally injures a child in the presence of the child's mother, and the mother suffers psychological trauma as a result, the defendant can be liable for the mother's mental suffering. In some jurisdictions, a bystander can recover damages for mental distress caused by observing an event in which another person negligently, but not intentionally, causes harm to a family member.

Compensatory damages of an economic nature may also be recovered by an injured party. A plaintiff may recover for loss of earnings resulting from an injury. The measure of lost earnings is the amount of money that the plaintiff might reasonably have earned by working in her or his profession during the time the plaintiff was incapacitated because of the injury. In the case of a permanent disability, this amount can be determined by calculating the earnings that the injured party actually lost and multiplying that figure out to the age of retirement—with adjustments. If the amount of earnings actually lost cannot be determined with certainty, as in the case of a salesperson paid by commission, the plaintiff's average earnings or general qualities and qualifications for the occupation in which she or he has been employed are considered. Evidence of past earnings can also be used to determine loss of future earnings. As a general rule, lost earnings that are speculative are not recoverable, although each case must be examined individually to determine whether damages can be established with reasonable certainty. For example, a plaintiff who bought a restaurant immediately before suffering an injury could not recover damages for the profits he might have made running it, because such profits would be speculative. A plaintiff who is unable to accept a promotion to another job because of an injury would stand a better chance of recovering damages for loss of earnings, because the amount lost could be established with more certainty.

Individuals injured by the wrongful conduct of another may also recover damages for impairment of earning capacity, so long as that impairment is a direct and foreseeable consequence of a disabling injury of a permanent or lingering nature. The amount of damages is determined by calculating the difference between the amount of money the injured person had the capacity to earn prior to the injury and the amount he or she is capable of earning after the injury, in view of his or her life expectancy.

Loss of profit is another element of compensatory damages, allowing an individual to recover if such a loss can be established with sufficient certainty and is a direct and probable result of the defendant's wrongful actions. Expected profits that are uncertain or contingent upon fluctuating conditions would not be recoverable, nor would they be awarded if no evidence existed from which they could be reasonably determined.

A plaintiff can recover all reasonable and necessary expenses brought about by an injury caused by the wrongful acts of a defendant. In a contract action, for example, the party who has been injured by another's breach can recover compensatory damages that include the reasonable expenses that result from reliance on the contract, such as the cost of transporting perishable goods wrongfully refused by the other contracting party. In other actions, expenses awarded as part of compensatory damages may include medical, nursing, and prescription drug costs; the costs of future medical treatment, if necessary; or the costs of restoring a damaged vehicle and of renting another vehicle while repairs are performed.

Interest can be awarded to compensate an injured party for money wrongfully withheld from her or him, as when an individual defaults on an obligation to pay money owed under a contract. Interest is ordinarily awarded from the date of default, which is set by the time stated in the contract for payment, the date a demand for payment is made, or the date the lawsuit alleging the breach of the contract is initiated.

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