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Accident victims usually understand that they are entitled to compensation for financial losses caused by another person’s carelessness. They reasonably expect their medical bills to be paid and their lost wages to be reimbursed. Financial losses that result from a personal injury are known as “economic damages.”

Injury victims may also have heard that they are entitled to compensation for “pain and suffering,” but they are often uncertain about what that phrase includes. Compensation for pain and suffering falls within a broad category that the law classifies as “noneconomic damages.”

California law defines “noneconomic damages” as “subjective, non-monetary losses including, but not limited to, pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental suffering, emotional distress, loss of society and companionship, loss of consortium, injury to reputation, and humiliation.” Another California statute lists inconvenience, physical impairment, and disfigurement among the losses that are included in noneconomic damages.

Physical pain

Physical and emotional pain are both included within the concept of pain and suffering, although California law treats them somewhat differently. Physical pain usually results from an impact with the body. Cuts, puncture wounds, crush injuries, broken bones, loosened teeth, and other physical consequences of car or motorcycle crashes are often intensely painful experiences. Accident victims are entitled to compensation for being made to endure that pain.

Sometimes pain results from negligent acts that do not produce an impact. An accidental poisoning may cause severe abdominal pain. Medical malpractice may lead to a painful infection or to the growth of a preventable cancer. Unsafe drugs and defective products may also produce painful illnesses. Again, victims of negligence who suffer from that pain are entitled to pursue compensation.

Emotional distress

Accident victims can seek compensation for emotional distress when their distress is caused by a physical injury. California law defines emotional distress as including mental anguish, fright, nervousness, grief, anxiety, worry, shock, humiliation, shame, and similar negative emotional states. For example, if an injury victim worries that her injuries may prevent her from conceiving a child in the future, that emotional distress is compensable. When an injury prevents a victim from playing softball or lifting a child or engaging in other activities that the person enjoyed before the injury occurred, that loss of pleasure is also a compensable form of emotional distress.

Scarring and disfigurement can produce severe emotional distress, particularly in younger accident victims. The thought of going through life with obvious facial scars is usually a significant source of depression and anxiety for victims who fear that their disfigurement will have a negative impact on their social lives or employability.

In some cases, emotional distress that results from a negligent act can be awarded even when the negligence does not produce a physical injury. For example, a parent who sees a child being struck by a negligent driver may be entitled to recover emotional distress damages. Because California law is complex, a personal injury lawyer will need to evaluate the facts of the case before giving advice about the potential availability of emotional distress damages when the victim has not been physically injured.


Disabling injuries have the potential to change a life in drastic ways. The loss of eyesight due to flying shrapnel in a car crash forces the accident victim to depend on technology, dogs, or other people for assistance in conducting the ordinary affairs of life. The loss of independence can cause emotional distress, but juries must also consider the inconvenience of changing a lifestyle to cope with blindness.

Other disabilities, ranging from paralysis to a loss of brain function, make life more difficult for injury victims. Coping with those injuries is often frustrating. Many disabilities increase the time that injury victims need to perform simple tasks. Accident victims often receive substantial compensation for the inconvenience that results from an extreme loss of functionality.

Damages caps

The California legislature has enacted two important limitations upon the right of an accident victim to recover noneconomic damages. First, a victim who is injured in a vehicle accident may not recover noneconomic damages if:

  • the victim was convicted of impaired driving (including driving with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08% or higher) related to the accident that caused the injury, even if the injured driver was not at fault,
  • the victim was driving his or her own vehicle and did not carry the liability insurance required by California law, or
  • the victim was driving someone else’s vehicle and cannot satisfy the requirements of California’s financial responsibility law (usually by having insurance or posting a required bond).

The law makes an exception for uninsured victims when the victim was driving his or her own car and the driver responsible for the accident was convicted of an impaired driving offense. Under those circumstances, an uninsured traffic accident victim can recover noneconomic damages.

Second, if the injury victim was injured while committing a felony, or while fleeing to avoid arrest after committing a felony, the victim cannot recover noneconomic damages even if the felony had nothing to do with the accident that caused the injury. This limitation applies only if the injured driver is convicted of the felony.

The third limitation on the ability to recover noneconomic damages applies to medical malpractice cases. California law limits those damages to $250,000.

You should never assume that any law will prevent you from recovering noneconomic damages caused by another person’s negligence. Always get prompt legal advice from a California personal injury lawyer so that you can be sure to understand your rights.