Personal Injury

Recoverable Damages In An Auto Accident Lawsuit

By David Goguen, J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law
"Damages" is just a legal term for compensable losses after a car accident. But what kinds of "damages" are available, and how are they quantified with a dollar value?

If you decide to file a personal injury lawsuit after a car accident, you’re essentially asking the court to order the at-fault driver (now called the “defendant” in the lawsuit) to pay you “damages.” That’s just a legal term that means compensation for your injuries, vehicle damage, lost income, “pain and suffering,” and other losses resulting from the accident.

In this article we’ll take a look at the different kinds of damages that a plaintiff (that’s the person who is bringing the case to court) can receive in a car accident lawsuit, and we’ll explain why you don’t need to wait for a trial (or even a lawsuit) to recover damages.

What Are Compensatory Damages?

In all but the rarest of car accident cases, the “damages” that an injured person receives -- whether that person was a driver, a passenger, a motorcyclist, a bicyclist, or a pedestrian -- will fall under the umbrella of “compensatory damages.” Simply put (and as the name indicates), compensatory damages are intended to compensate the plaintiff for all variety of losses stemming from the accident, including:

  • past and future medical treatment
  • lost income
  • future lost earnings (including diminished ability to earn a living)
  • pain and suffering, and vehicle damage

How Are Compensatory Damages Determined?

If your car accident case makes it all the way to trial (which is very rare in any kind of personal injury lawsuit) and the jury decides that the defendant is in fact liable for the car accident, the jury will also make a finding as to the extent of that liability. In other words, does the defendant bear all of the blame for the accident, or does some measure of fault lie with you or some third party?

Once fault has been apportioned, the extent of your losses will be assessed. Some kinds of compensatory damages are easy to assess, such as past medical bills and lost income. Others, like “pain and suffering” and “loss of enjoyment” are notoriously difficult to quantify in terms of dollar value.

Here are the kinds of questions that a jury (or the judge in some cases) will need to consider in assessing compensatory damages in a car accident lawsuit:

  • How much were the plaintiff’s medical bills?
  • What is the cost of any future medical care made necessary by the accident?
  • How much income did the plaintiff lose?
  • Will the accident and resulting injuries have an impact on the plaintiff’s ability to make a living going forward?
  • Is the plaintiff temporarily or permanently disabled as a result of the accident?
  • Did/is the plaintiff experiencing anxiety, sleeplessness, emotional distress, PTSD, or any other psychological/emotional difficulties attributable to the accident?

Learn more about Car Accidents and Personal Injury Lawsuits.

Car Accident Lawsuit or Car Insurance Claim?

It’s important to note that the concept of “damages” isn’t limited to a personal injury lawsuit filed over a car accident. Even if you only file an insurance claim after a crash -- for example, you make a “third party” claim with the carrier that insures the at-fault driver -- any monetary settlement you receive will, at least informally, be considered “damages.”

Depending on the circumstances of your settlement -- and perhaps also depending on the stage at which you settle your car accident case -- you may receive a single settlement check meant to cover all of your losses, while the “release” you are asked to sign itemizes the different categories of damages for example:

  • “total loss of vehicle,” meaning payment of the “actual cash value” of your car at the time of the accident, if it is declared a “total loss” by the insurance company
  • “special damages,” meaning your medical bills, lost income, and other easily-calculable losses, and
  • “general damages,” an amount meant to compensate you for your pain and suffering (the insurance company may categories this payment as “inconvenience”)

In some instances, the claimant may actually receive separate checks for each of these categories. Learn more about Personal Injury Insurance Claims Versus Personal Injury Lawsuits.

Questions For Your Attorney

  • Will you need to retain an expert witness to quantify the impact the accident will have on my future earnings?
  • If the other driver and I were both at fault for the accident, how will damages be assessed?
  • My accident happened in a no-fault car insurance state. Can I still sue the other driver and get compensation for my “pain and suffering”?

If you've been involved in a car accident within the last three years, please consider taking our car accident survey so that we can include your experience in Martindale-Nolo's 2018 Car Accident Survey. Your participation will help inform others about their situation and options before dealing with their car accident.

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