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If a Plaintiff Is Awarded Compensation, How Is the Amount Decided?

If a Plaintiff Is Awarded Compensation, How Is the Amount Decided?

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Date Modified: September 9, 2023

Were you or your loved one injured in a car accident with bodily injuries, property damage, or another situation not your fault? When a personal injury case goes to trial, the judge or the jury decides the compensation award after reviewing the facts and evidence presented by both parties in a trial and implementing the relevant laws. It can be confusing to wrap your head around how a judge or jury considers the value of personal injury damages.

And this is precisely why our personal injury attorneys will explain how the process works and what is important in helping the judge or jury determine the compensation award, aka compensatory damages.

  • Video Transcript - If a Plaintiff Is Awarded Compensation, How Is the Amount Decided?

    Video Transcript - If a Plaintiff Is Awarded Compensation, How Is the Amount Decided?

    "0:00 If a plaintiff is awarded compensation

    0:02 How is the amount of damages in

    0:06 a plaintiff case are decided is in many

    0:08 different ways. If it’s a negligence case

    0:12 for example, the damages would be broken

    0:14 up into general damages and special

    0:18 damages. General damages would include

    0:20 damages like the plaintiff’s past present

    0:23 and future pain and suffering. The

    0:26 economic portion or special damages

    0:28 would include damages like the

    0:31 plaintiff’s past lost earnings current

    0:35 lost earnings. In future lost earnings as

    0:37 well as the cost of past present in

    0:40 future medical care, obviously a

    0:43 plaintiff who has suffered significant

    0:44 injuries such as brain damage or loss of

    0:46 motor functions or quadriplegia or

    0:49 paraplegia is going to need significant

    0:52 future medical care. So those damages

    0:55 would be proved based upon his life or

    0:58 her life expectancy chart. These life

    1:01 expectancy charts are actually posted in

    1:04 the back of the California jury

    1:06 instructions. It’s an actuarial table

    1:08 that will tell you the expected life of

    1:10 this person. Then what a good plaintiff’s

    1:13 attorney will do is hire an expert

    1:15 witness or treating physician who will

    1:18 then give a reasonable and accurate

    1:20 statement based upon the average cost of

    1:24 care treatment over that given time

    1:26 period. Then the damages are calculated

    1:29 mathematically to determine what that

    1:32 cost or damage would be. [Music]"

How an Attorney Can Help Guide the Jury in Deciding Personal Injury Damages

When a case goes to trial, both parties have the opportunity to present the facts of the case and support it with evidence. Since the personal injury plaintiff has the burden of proof, they go first, and then the defendant can offer evidence to rebuke the plaintiff’s claims. The evidence is the determining factor in helping the jurors understand the damages dollar figure the plaintiff suffers.

Here are some witnesses an attorney may call in the trial to help establish a compensatory damages award or actual damages judgment in your case for the negligent act.

Friends and Family Members

The people closely associated with the injured party are the ones that can help explain to the jury the extent of the injuries or damage the incident has on the plaintiff’s life. These include close friends and family members who have spent time with the injured party following the incident and know how the incident continues to impact the plaintiff’s life.

If the plaintiff suffered severe injuries, including mental anguish and emotional distress, family members could explain the plaintiff’s struggles or the impact on their routine due to the injuries.

Employer Can Demonstrate Lost Wages

If the accident resulted in time off work, the attorney might bring the employer to the stand. They would question them about how many days the plaintiff missed work, any opportunities or promotions they lost, and relevant questions to help the jury determine lost wages and loss of earning potential as an award of compensatory damages.

Medical Doctors Can Show Medical Bills

Even minor injuries in a personal injury case can lead to medical expenses. The plaintiff’s medical doctor is the best witness to help the jury understand the extent of the injuries and the medical treatment they received. 

A medical doctor can also talk about the actual expenses incurred and any other future medical expenses for treatment the plaintiff may require due to their injuries.

Economists Can Establish Compensatory Damages

Although attorneys may not always call economists in personal injury cases, they can bring an economist in wrongful death claims to help establish the actual damages arising from the death of the plaintiff’s loved one.

Mental Health Professionals Can Prove Emotional Distress

In some cases, the jury can understand the plaintiff’s pain. Still, it may be difficult for them in other cases as they may not share a similar personal experience in recovering the maximum compensatory damages under California law.

In these types of cases, the attorney may call mental health professionals or therapists to the stand where they describe what mental issues the plaintiff is suffering from following the incident, such as emotional distress and mental anguish, how it continues to impact their lives, and the recovery process. 

Mental health professionals can add a lot of weight to sexual assault cases by explaining to the jury the emotional distress the victim is experiencing.

Life Care Planner Can Assign a Dollar Value

Individuals who suffer permanent injuries may require lifetime care. A life care planner can let the jury know the treatments and equipment needed and assign a dollar value to it.

Besides witnesses, the attorneys also present documents, medical bills, medical records, and pictures of the injuries. They may refer to previous similar cases and connect those cases with the current trial.

Evidence Is Important in Determining the Compensatory Damages

When both parties present the facts and evidence during the trial, the jurors pay close attention to what the attorneys bring up and how it may have affected each party. In most courtrooms, jurors can now take notes during legal proceedings to help them calculate compensatory damages awarded.

After the trial, the judge requires the jury to spend time in the jury room and review the evidence to help determine the outcome of the personal injury case. They must rely on their memories, trial exhibits, or the notes they take down.

Generally, the jurors cannot discuss the case or the evidence with each other prior to deliberation. That way, the jurors can go into deliberation without anyone influencing their decisions. However, during deliberations, the jurors can discuss the facts and evidence presented until they are satisfied with how the incident occurred.

Reviewing evidence and discussions can take about an hour in simpler personal injury cases, but in more complex cases, it could take a day or more. Once the jurors have a good idea about the facts of the case, they will turn to the law.

Applying the Law: Jury Instructions Vs. Emotional Appeal

At the end of the trial, the judge gives them lengthy instructions to follow before the jury heads to deliberation. All the instructions are orally provided to the jury, but many judges also provide written instructions.

The instructions are simple and cover everything the jury should know about deliberations. It explains how the jury should deliberate, how to analyze the evidence presented and the witnesses at the trial, and the relevant law pertaining to the case.

The judges carefully let the jury know that they should not let their emotions make a decision even if they disagree with the law. The fundamental principle of the United States jury system is to make decisions based on the law, and the facts/evidence presented rather than their emotions.

However, avoiding emotions and feelings during deliberation can be challenging as it is part of human nature. They may apply common sense to the verdict and let their emotions sway them.

Plaintiff lawyers understand how emotions can influence a decision and try to bring an emotional appeal to their case to have a better chance of winning.

Emotional Appeal and the Jury

Several situations can create emotional appeal, and these may include the following:

  • Serious or permanent injuries
  • Injuries to a minor
  • Pictures of the injuries
  • Evidence that the defendant lied about how the accident occurred
  • Proof that the defendant tried to cover their negligence
  • A pleasant plaintiff with a good family background.

Defense attorneys also understand human nature and how plaintiff lawyers can create emotional appeal, which is why they do not like trying such cases.

How Do Jurors Decide Pain and Suffering?

Deciding pain and suffering for the jury is challenging, especially when the judge’s instructions do not include information on calculating such damages. A jury can quickly add up medical bills and lost wages to determine economic damages, but they can face challenges when determining non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering.

Judges do not provide too much information on calculating pain and suffering. They let the jury know they must use their good sense, the case’s background and facts, and their experience in determining fair compensation for pain and suffering.

The jury tries to put themselves in the plaintiff’s shoes and think about what they would expect if anyone negligently harmed them as the defendant did to the plaintiff. They would use their good sense and think about how much money they would want if that incident occurred to them and discuss it with each other during deliberation.

Remember, there are all kinds of people on a jury who have various backgrounds and experiences. Discussing during deliberation can help them come to compensatory damages they believe is fair. Once there is a consensus on what they believe is fair, that will be the case’s verdict in the amount of the compensatory damages obtained.

It can be risky for the defendant to leave the case’s decision in the hands of a jury, which is why most cases are settled outside of court rather than going to trial.

Contributory Negligence in a Lawsuit

In some cases, the plaintiff may be responsible for some of the damages, which can affect compensatory damages. State laws determine how contributory negligence can affect a victim’s ability to obtain compensatory damages. Most US states adopted comparative negligence over contributory negligence in order to receive compensatory damages.

Compensatory and Punitive Damages

Unlike settlement, where there are only compensatory damages, the court may award punitive damages to punish the defendant and deter others from committing similar acts.  The court only awards plaintiffs punitive damages when the plaintiff can prove that the defendant’s actions were grossly negligent or intentionally intended to harm the plaintiff.

There is no particular standard set by the Supreme Court pertaining to punitive damages, and the juries have wide discretion. But it’s harder to recover these extraordinary types of damages.

Schedule a Free Consultation To Learn More About Compensation and How It’s Decided

If you suffered injuries due to another’s negligence, contact us at (833) LETS-SUE for a free consultation. You may be eligible for compensation and possibly even to recover punitive damages. Our attorneys will help discuss your personal injury case, protect your rights, and pursue an injury claim against the negligent party’s insurance company.

Michael Ehline is an inactive U.S. Marine and world-famous legal historian. Michael helped draft the Cruise Ship Safety Act and has won some of U.S. history’s largest motorcycle accident settlements. Together with his legal team, Michael and the Ehline Law Firm collect damages on behalf of clients.
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