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Personal Injury

July 13, 2024

What is Personal Injury?

Personal injury law covers injury suffered by a person. Personal injury is part of the law that includes all kinds of injuries to people and their property. State law usually governs personal injury lawsuits, but federal law may apply in certain circumstances. For example, an injury suffered on federal property may be covered by the Federal Tort Claims Act, or liability for injuries suffered in an airplane crash may be governed by international treaties.


If a judge or jury finds the defendant liable for their wrongful conduct in a personal injury case, the question becomes one of what type(s) of damages the plaintiff is entitled to. In most tort actions, the plaintiff must have been injured in some way that he/she is now entitled to damages. For example, in negligence torts, the plaintiff must prove injury (the plaintiff must have some type of physical, emotional or monetary harm) in order for the defendant to be held liable.

However, with some intentional torts (such as battery, assault or trespass) the plaintiff may only have to establish that the defendant engaged in unauthorized conduct. He or she may not have to prove there was actual physical harm in order to recover damages.

To determine the types of damages that can be awarded to the plaintiff, courts look at such factors as the seriousness of the harm, the extent of the defendant's wrongful conduct, and the circumstances surrounding the wrongful conduct. Three basic kinds of damages are awarded in personal injury cases: compensatory damages, punitive damages, and nominal damages.

Compensatory Damages

Compensatory damages are derived from the word "compensate," meaning "to make up for." These are damages paid monetarily for the harm done to the plaintiff. The victim has a right to be reimbursed for all costs as a result of the damages incured. Insurance adjusters will refer to this category as "special damages" or merely "specials."

The damages can include:

  • All medical bills

  • Wages lost while injured and during recuperatory period

  • Costs associated with household, nursing help during recovery, cost of wheelchair or crutches or rental cost of substitute cars

  • Cost to replace or repair damaged property

  • Injured victims can also sue for general damages in addition to actual damages.

  • General damages include the things that can't be precisely documented in dollars, including:

  • Pain and suffering endured due to injuries and any subsequent mental anguish

  • Disfigurement resulting from injuries

  • Value of medical expenses the plaintiff is likely to incur in the future

  • Value of future wages plaintiff will lose in the future

  • Aggravation of pre-existing injury

    Punitive Damages

    Punitive damages are not based on a victim's injuries. Rather, they are a way to punish the defendant for gross negligence--behavior that is so egregious that a civil court penalty is needed to deter the defendant from committing the same negligence again in the future. For example, if a doctor practices without a license and botches an operation resulting in the severe disfigurement of a patient, the plaintiff may ask for hefty punitive damages to penalize the doctor.

    Nominal Damages

    Nominal damages are symbolic gestures acknowledging that the plaintiff was legally wronged, while at the same time recognizing a lack of evidence establishing that the plaintiff suffered actual damages. Nominal damages are very small awards with fines of $1.00 not being uncommon.

    Attorneys' fees and court costs

    In addition to damages, a plaintiff may also be able to recover attorneys' fees and court costs. Court costs include the cost of stenographers, transcriptions or translators. Attorneys' fees include billed hours, expert testimony, and all remaining expenses generated from handling a case.

    To speak with an experienced personal injury attorney, click on one of the banners of tiles on this page.



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