Types of Legal Damages

Legal damages are financial amends paid to a lawsuit plaintiff for harm inflicted by the defendant. The types of damages claimed and proven determine the amount of money a claimant may receive in a successful lawsuit.

Damages Apply to Tort Law

A tort in and of itself is any act resulting in injury to another person, their property or their reputation. There are many different kinds of torts, but we see those involving negligence and product liability most frequently here at ConsumerSafety.org.

Tort law defines the section of our legal system that protects individuals from the harmful acts of others. It is sometimes described as corrective justice, meaning it intends to restore the injured party to the position, financial or otherwise, they would have occupied if not for the bad acts of another. Damages are the means by which the American legal system achieves that restoration, usually in the form of monetary awards.

Compensatory and Punitive Damages

There are two main types of damages: compensatory and punitive. Judges or juries award compensatory damages in an effort to financially compensate the injured party for the losses incurred as a result of another's wrongful act.

Compensatory damages can be categorized as either special damages or general damages. Special damages, sometimes referred to as actual losses, correspond to tangible monetary losses like lost wages or medical bills. General damages are associated with intangible injuries like mental anguish, pain and suffering, or loss of opportunity.  Both are common in personal injury cases.

The following injuries are accounted for within compensatory damages:

Types of Compensatory Damages

Special Damages General Damages
  • Repair of Property Damage
  • Replacement of Damaged Property
  • Lost Earnings
  • Medical Expenses
  • Ambulance Fees
  • Increased Living Expenses
  • Transportation
  • Future Loss of Earnings
  • Future Decrease in Sales
  • Future Medical Care
  • Physical Pain
  • Emotional Distress or Trauma
  • Loss of Companionship
  • Loss of Consortium
  • Loss of Reputation
  • Loss or Impairment of Physical Capacity
  • Loss of Opportunity
  • Loss of Enjoyment of Life

It can be understandably difficult to assign a dollar amount to many of these injuries. This likely explains some of the variability you may see in lawsuit damage awards.

Learn more about compensatory damages here >>

Punitive damages are levied as a punishment for the breaching party. They also serve as an incentive to refrain from repeating the tort. When you see a single lawsuit plaintiff earn a judgment on the order of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars, the punitive damages award likely inflated the total amount. They are typically awarded in cases where the defendant's conduct was considered outrageously reckless, negligent or deliberate.

Learn more about punitive damages here >>

Note: In many countries, legal costs can be included in an award of damages, but not in the United States.

Special Categories of Damages

Some kinds of damages rarely apply to personal injury and defective product lawsuits, because they occur only in very specific situations like those covered by contract law.

Liquidated Damages: Compensation defined and agreed by all parties in a contract, only awarded in cases of breach of contract; not typically enforced under common law

Nominal Damages: Damages awarded simply out of principle in cases of minor harm warranting legal recognition and compensation, usually a very small sum of money, e.g. $1

Consequential Damages: Financial losses sustained as a downstream result of breach of contract

Incidental Damages: Financial harm associated with special damages, like the cost incurred if a shipping company must halt delivery mid-shipment as a result of client breach of contract

Examples of Lawsuit Judgments and Included Damages

Example 1: Damages Award Overturned on Appeal

In August 2017, Eva Echeverria's talcum powder lawsuit against pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson ended in a $417 million verdict. She claimed that J&J knew their baby powder carried a risk of cancer and willfully chose to conceal it from consumers.

The jury broke their award decision into a total of $70 million in compensatory damages and $347 million in punitive damages against Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc. and parent company J&J. This award was overturned on appeal due to alleged jury misconduct and trial errors leading to excessive damages.

Example 2: Damages Award Reduced on Appeal

In 2016, a California man filed a Roundup lawsuit against Monsanto, claiming the weedkiller contributed to his development of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Some 2.5 years later, a jury agreed with Dewayne Johnson about the role the glyphosate-based herbicide played in his cancer. They awarded him approximately $39 million in compensatory damages and $250 million in punitive damages.

Monsanto appealed the verdict, but a San Francisco Superior Court judge upheld the original decision in October 2018. However, even though the verdict was upheld, the judge reduced the total amount the Johnson family would receive to $78.5 million, stating that the maximum amount of punitive damages could not exceed those of the compensatory damages under due process considerations.

Proving Damages Is Complicated

Just looking at these two decisions, you can see how variable the measure of damages can be in civil actions. In each of the above-mentioned cases, the plaintiffs had been diagnosed with terminal illnesses as an alleged result of flawed or dangerous products. Despite that similarity, the amount of compensatory damages for Eva Echeverria was almost twice that of Dewayne Johnson.

These examples illustrate why a discussion with a lawyer experienced in medical device or drug lawsuits is the best way to understand the monetary potential of any associated lawsuit or personal injury case.

You can learn more about the types of damages associated with a variety of lawsuits by clicking the appropriate link below:

Legal Damages Terminology


Synonym for plaintiff

Exemplary Damages

Synonym for punitive damages

Actual Damages

Synonym for compensatory damages

Specific Performance

In contract law, a court order in which the defendant must fulfill their contractual obligation(s) as best they can, because monetary damages will not sufficiently compensate the plaintiff

Authored by Katy Moncivais, Ph.D.Medical Editor
Photo of Katy Moncivais, Ph.D.
Katy Moncivais holds a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from The University of Texas at Austin. She’s an experienced Regenerative Medicine Consultant with a demonstrated history of working in the hospital & healthcare industry. Skilled in adult stem cells, medical devices, biomechanics, bacterial and mammalian cell culture, and regenerative medicine, she provides guidance on an array of topics affecting consumers. In her role at ConsumerSafety.org, Dr. Moncivais works alongside the writing and research staff to help deliver fact-based news stories to consumers. Her unique professional history alongside her rigorous educational background allows her to contribute to a variety of consumer-focused topics with a fresh perspective. In addition, Dr. Moncivais reviews portions of medically driven content to ensure scientific accuracy.
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