Filing a lawsuit is a big undertaking. There are many things to consider including the specific facts of the case, the applicable law, the likelihood of success and the cost of filing suit. One of the key questions that all plaintiffs must ask is - do I have any damages? Without any damages, there is little reason to bring a lawsuit.
Even with damages it might not be wise to pursue a lawsuit. The costs of bringing the case need to be weighed against the amount of recoverable damages. A plaintiff who has minimal damages, for example, one medical bill for a trip to the emergency room or a missed day of work due to a headache caused by a minor car accident, will likely end up paying more to bring a lawsuit then they would be able to recover in damages.
It is important to know the different types of damages available under the law and understand that not all damages are available in all cases. You should talk to a Charlotte, North Carolina attorney to understand the types of damages and what damages you could potentially recover.
The damages discussed below are applicable to tort actions. Torts occur when one party violates a law and injures another party because of their actions. Torts include personal injury (car accidents, slip and falls, dog bite cases), medical malpractice and wrongful death claims.
Types of Damages
1. Nominal Damages
Nominal damages are small, or minimal, damages. The damages referred to above, one medical bill or one missed day of work, would be considered nominal. Nominal damages are typically awarded as a recognition that there was a violation of the law and that an injury did occur.
2. Compensatory Damages
Compensatory damages are intended to make the injured party (plaintiff) whole. Compensatory damages are much broader than nominal damages and are the damages that are most frequently awarded. Compensatory damages include both economic damages and non-economic damages.
A. Economic Damages. Also referred to as “special damages” these are quantifiable damages, where a dollar value can be determined. Economic damages include:
- Medical bills. This typically covers out-of-pocket costs to date for things like hospital and doctor visits, prescription medicines, necessary medical equipment. It also covers future estimated medical bills and needs. It may be necessary to hire an expert to determine what future medical expenses will be.
- Lost Wages. In the case of a minor injury, you may need a short leave of absence from work and then time for follow-up doctor visits after returning to work. In the case of a more severe injury, you might be out of work for an extended period of time or possibly the rest of your life.
- Property damage or loss. Is what it sounds like, the cost to replace or repair damaged property. In the case of a car accident, your car may need to be repaired or replaced.
B. Non-Economic Damages. Also referred to as “general damages,” these are damages for which it is hard to assign a monetary value. They include:
- Pain and suffering. This includes both mental and physical distress. In the case of a car accident, the injured party might have recurring nightmares or anxiety any time they need to get in the car. In a medical malpractice case, a plaintiff may have PTSD or depression. It is hard to say how much these injuries are worth, but they are real injuries that are compensable.
- Loss of enjoyment. This is exactly what it sounds like, not being able to do the things you enjoy anymore. If you were an avid gardener who lost the use of your hands after being injured in a car accident, and can no longer garden, you might be able to recover for loss of enjoyment.
- Loss of consortium. These damages are generally available to a family member. So if a woman is severely injured in a car accident and is no longer able to provide her husband with love and companionship, damages for consortium could be awarded.
Punitive damages are available only in certain types of lawsuits, like personal injury and medical malpractice, and under very specific circumstances. They are intended to punish the defendant for egregious, or extremely bad, behavior and prevent them, and others, from committing similar acts. In order to have a claim for punitive damages, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s behavior was:
- Willful or wanton. N.C. Gen. Stat. §1D-5 defines this as “conscious and intentional disregard of and indifference to the rights and safety of others, which the defendant knows or should know is reasonably necessary to result in injury, damage or other harm;”
- With malice; or
Limits on Damages
There are some limitations on damages that plaintiffs need to keep in mind. Some states, including North Carolina, impose a cap on damages. In Charlotte, North Carolina a is imposed on both non-economic and punitive damages. In the case of punitive damages, this means that if punitive damages are awarded, there is a limit on the amount of punitive damages you can receive. North Carolina allows punitive damages awards up to three times the amount of awarded compensatory damages or $250,000, whichever is greater. N.C. Gen. Stat. §1D-25(b). This could be beneficial to a plaintiff in a case where the compensatory damage award is low. If a plaintiff was awarded $25,000 in compensatory damages, they would be eligible for the maximum allowed punitive damages of $250,000 rather than 3 times the compensatory damage award which would only be $75,000. On the other hand, in the case of a high compensatory damages award, the North Carolina cap would work against the plaintiff. If a plaintiff was awarded $300,000 in compensatory damages, they would still only be able to recover $250,000 in punitive damages. In a state without a cap, that same plaintiff might be able to recover $900,000, which equals three times the amount of the compensatory damages award.
North Carolina also imposes a cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases. The cap is $500,000, with one exception. If a judge or jury finds that the medical professional’s actions led to the plaintiff’s “disfigurement, loss of use of part of the body, permanent injury or death,” then the cap does not apply. NC Gen. Stat. §90-21.19.
North Carolina is also a contributory negligence state, meaning that the injured party may be prohibited from recovering damages if he/she was even slightly at fault. A Charlotte, North Carolina attorney can advise you on the specific details of these limits and whether or not they apply to your case.
Our Charlotte, North Carolina Attorneys Can Help
Damages are an important part of any lawsuit. If you were injured in a car accident or were the victim of medical malpractice, you should consult with an attorney to determine if you have compensable damages.
The Charlotte, NC based lawyers at Rosensteel Fleishman, PLLC are experienced attorneys who can help you understand your rights and whether or not you have damages and should proceed with a claim. Please contact our office at 704-714-1450. There is no fee for an initial consultation.