What Are Non-Economic Damages in California?
In most California personal injury cases, there are two broad categories of damages that plaintiffs can seek to recover: “economic” damages (also sometimes called “special” damages), and “non-economic” damages (also known as “general” damages). Economic damages represent the direct, easily-calculated costs you have incurred as a result of a personal injury. They include expenses like medical bills and lost wages.
Below, we explain what non-economic damages are, how juries, lawyers, and insurance companies try to calculate them, and some of the laws that govern their recovery in California. If, after reading this post, you have questions about whether you are entitled to recover any kind of damages because of a personal injury you’ve suffered, contact the personal injury team at Bohn & Fletcher to schedule a free consultation with a member of our team.
Non-Economic Damages Defined
The term “non-economic damages” refers to that class of damages that are not determined by reference to charges, expenses or losses contained in documents. They encompass a variety of very real damages that result from personal injures such as emotional distress, physical pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, and damage to relationships with family members or spouses. spiritual, and societal harm a personal injury can cause, such as “pain and suffering,” “loss of consortium,” “loss of life enjoyment,” and “diminished quality of life.”
It takes experience to Put a Value on Non-Economic Damages
These are difficult categories to value. Often, money is an inadequate substitute for the harm non-economic damages aim to fix. After all, what is the appropriate amount to award for extreme physical and emotional pain felt by a burn victim whose face has been permanently disfigured? What is the correct amount of money to compensate the grieving parents of a child tragically killed in a car accident? What dollar value can we put on the agony of a family who watched their loved one slowly die from toxic exposure to chemicals in the workplace?
Reasonable people can come up with widely differing numbers for these and similar types of non-economic damages. Their assessments are driven by their subjective values, beliefs, emotional sensitivities, and sense of justice. As a result, non-economic damages may, in some cases, far exceed the amount of economic damages. Consider, for instance, a case in which a defective toy explodes and kills a small child. The parents’ economic damages in such a case are small (the cost of the toy, perhaps), but their non-economic damages are almost limitless.
Not surprisingly, courts and juries often struggle to come up with fair and rational non-economic damage awards, and they can vary widely from case-to-case. This is why having an experienced attorney capable of successfully presenting non-economic damages is critical. Many of the cases in which Bohn & Fletcher has achieved multi-million dollar results included significant non-economic damage awards.
How Are Pain and Suffering Damages Calculated in California?
There is no fixed formula for calculating pain and suffering or other non-economic damages in California. Juries must consider the evidence and come up with a reasonable, common-sense value (which explains the variation referred-to above). Some factors that tend to affect the relative value of non-economic damage awards from one case to the next include the duration and severity of a person’s injuries, the degree to which the injuries affected the person’s (or surviving family members’) day-to-day life, and what constitutes a full recovery from the injury or loss.
Here’s an illustration of the challenges juries can face. Imagine a jury presented with the task of determining damages for two people, a driver and passenger of a car involved in an auto accident. For simplicity’s sake, assume neither of these people had any fault for causing the accident.
The collision crushed multiple bones in the driver’s legs. A series of agonizingly painful surgeries left her with disfiguring scars running the length of both legs and with one leg now two inches shorter than the other. Before the accident, the driver was an aspiring Olympic springboard diver and part-time model. Not only are her dreams of going for gold now crushed, but she cannot bear wearing a swimsuit due to her disfiguring injuries. Her modeling jobs have disappeared, and since the trauma of the accident, she has developed debilitating anxiety and depression.
The passenger suffered a spinal cord injury in the accident, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. He, too, was an aspiring elite athlete and has seen his dreams of playing pro soccer evaporate now that he is confined to a wheelchair. Unlike the driver, however, he has been able to shift his athletic focus to wheelchair marathons, and is already in training to compete at a high level. He maintains a positive outlook on life. Unfortunately, research has shown that life may be significantly shorter than it might have been had the accident not happened; doctors think the passenger’s paralysis will shorten his lifespan by at least ten years.
If you were on this jury, to whom would you award more non-economic damages? The driver, who still has use of her legs, but whose disfiguring injuries functionally end her career and contribute to her mental health struggles? The passenger, who will likely never walk again in his shortened life, but who may yet win a marathon? Both of them equally? Would your opinion be different if their genders were reversed, or both were the same gender? If one had small children but the other didn’t? If, instead of being aspiring athletes, they were both in their 60s and were former athletes?
There are no “correct” answers to these questions, which is why we said above that reasonable people can come to different conclusions about them. Based on experience and past results, however, a skilled California personal injury attorney can often estimate a range of potential non-economic damages for a case (though that is no guarantee of a recovery). Most importantly, a capable trial attorney can help a jury appreciate—and put a dollar value on—noneconomic losses.
Does California Put a Cap on Non-Economic Damages?
Generally no, with one exception. In medical malpractice cases, California law limits plaintiffs to $250,000 in non-economic damages. In all other personal injury cases, a plaintiff who presents sufficient evidence of pain and suffering and other non-economic damages has no cap on the amount of a potential award.
What Are Punitive Damages?
Punitive damages (also known as “exemplary damages” in California) constitute a special, separate category of non-economic damages. Whereas other non-economic damages aim to compensate personal injury plaintiffs for the harms they suffered, punitive damages have a different purpose. As their name suggests, they aim to punish the person or company that harmed the plaintiff and to deter similar harmful actions in the future.
Under California law, punitive damages may be awarded “where it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant has been guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice.” What does the law mean by those terms? It means that the defendant either:
- Intended to harm the plaintiff;
- Willfully and consciously disregarded the plaintiff’s rights or safety;
- Subjected the plaintiff to cruel and unjust hardship in conscious disregard of the plaintiff’s rights; or
- Intentionally deceived the plaintiff.
There is no fixed cap on punitive damages under California law, but they must nevertheless bear some relation to the size of the economic and non-economic compensatory damages the jury awards. An experienced California personal injury lawyer can help you determine whether it is appropriate to seek punitive damages in your case.
How Do Insurance Companies Deal With Non-Economic Damages?
Like juries, insurance companies also routinely face the challenge of determining non-economic damages in California personal injury cases. Unlike juries, however, insurance companies have vast records of past awards to base their estimates on, and a strong financial incentive to limit the size of future awards whenever they can.
When a person with a personal injury files a claim seeking compensation from an insurance company, the insurance company should (but doesn’t always) take non-economic damages into account in offering a settlement. The settlement offer will be less than what the insurance company thinks a jury could award, because there’s always a chance a jury won’t award that much, and the insurance company knows the old saying about a bird in the hand being worth two in the bush.
Regrettably, insurance companies almost routinely, drastically undervalue or ignore non-economic losses. That is why hiring a skilled, resourceful, respected personal injury lawyer to conduct insurance settlement negotiations can make a huge difference in the size of a settlement offer.
In negotiating an insurance settlement, an experienced California personal injury lawyer collects evidence and presents arguments to the insurer for why the odds are strong that a jury would award the lawyer’s injured client a high figure for non-economic damages. The insurance company will take into account not just the strength of those arguments, but also the lawyer’s track record for winning large awards from California juries. Simply put, the better the lawyer, the higher the likely settlement offer.
Contact an Experienced, Respected California Personal Injury Lawyer
When injured Californians seek our help at Bohn & Fletcher, they often express frustration at how difficult it can be to estimate their non-economic damages. The discussion above aims to ease some of that frustration by explaining the challenges involved in making those estimates, and by showing how the best way to increase the odds of a large non-economic damage award is to retain a lawyer with experience and a strong reputation for recovering large awards.
If you or a family member have suffered a personal injury in California, you may be entitled to significant economic and non-economic damages. Don’t wait to seek legal help. The statute of limitations in California for taking legal action on a personal injury is generally two years.
Connect with the experienced, respected personal injury lawyers at Bohn & Fletcher, LLP, today at (408) 279-4222 or complete the contact form below.