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What are ‘nominal damages’ in a civil claim?

Video Transcript

“0:00 what aren’t nominal damages in a civil

0:02 claim nominal damages or damages which

0:06 are really just sent to send a little

0:10 message to people in other words a jury

0:13 could award you a plaintiff’s verdict

0:15 but find that you weren’t really harmed

0:17 and just simply give you a dollar these

0:19 types of damages are common in trespass

0:21 cases where someone is liable for

0:24 stepping on your grass but your grass

0:26 wasn’t really harmed so they could sue

0:28 and get a dollar in nominal damages

0:30 that’s an example of a nominal damage”

What are nominal damages? Nominal damages are exactly what they sound like “in name only.” These damages are typically a minimal amount that the court or jury may award to a party that, while successful, feel they do not deserve considerable damages for whatever reason.

This may be because they thought that one party exercised lousy faith or simply because they felt that no actual harm occurred.

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In cases where the plaintiff has not suffered significant losses and legally in the right, the court may award nominal damages. Since the plaintiff does not require compensation, the damages awarded in such cases are minor. It may be as little as a dollar or high enough to cover legal costs.

You may have heard of compensatory and punitive damages awarded for a personal injury claim, but a nominal damages claim may not ring a bill. Ehline Law and our personal injury attorneys will help explain the concept of nominal damages, why the court awards them, and their purpose.

What Are ‘Nominal Damages’ in a Civil Claim?

In personal injury claims, the plaintiff must provide evidence to establish the injuries that occurred or the property damage sustained. If the court believes that the defendant was at-fault and caused injuries to the plaintiff, it may award compensatory damages to the plaintiff.

However, in some situations, the plaintiff does not have sufficient evidence, did not gather the right evidence, or lacks actual injuries. Lack of evidence in most cases means that the plaintiff does not have grounds for a personal injury claim.

In some situations, it may be worthwhile to pursue nominal damages, a small sum of money awarded to a plaintiff whose legal rights are violated but who has not suffered financial losses.

The Purpose of Nominal Damages

Unlike compensatory damages that intend to compensate injured victims for the injuries suffered or punitive damages award that punishes the defendant, the court awards nominal damages to celebrate the plaintiff’s vindication or their victory in court.

Even though there may be no losses suffered, if the plaintiff’s rights are violated, awarding nominal damages help proves the plaintiff’s claims. These awards are small and may only cover the plaintiff’s legal costs.

In most cases, courts award one dollar, but many jurisdictions hold that the value of nominal damages may vary according to the case’s context. Generally, there are two situations where the court may award nominal damages. These include where the plaintiff failed to present evidence of their losses or where they did not suffer physical or financial losses but became a victim in some other way.

Since nominal damages are so small, many often question why they should put in the effort to pursue these types of damages. Nominal damages are essential for people who believe the defendant violated their rights and want to prove that by seeking the court’s acknowledgment.

Such an award is not a consideration for plaintiffs; instead, they seek legal vindication. The plaintiff may either establish grounds to pursue further legal action or want the mistreatment or injustice they suffered to be part of the legal record.

An example of this could be a civil rights violation case where a woman has her freedom of speech violated by the defendant. In such a situation, the court will award the plaintiff nominal damages since she didn’t experience actual damages from the violation.

Let’s look at an actual case to help you understand what nominal damages are in a civil claim.

Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski

The plaintiff, Chike Uzuegbunam, filed a lawsuit against the officials responsible for implementing the college’s speech policies after they violated his right to free speech.

Uzuegbunam was spreading religious literature in his college to spread his faith when the officials asked him for a permit. When he received the authorized permit, the officials again complained about his speeches and threatened to take action.

Uzuegbunam filed a lawsuit against the officials and sought monetary compensation and declaratory relief. The District Court dismissed his lawsuit, stating that his claims were moot, and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed based on ambiguous references to damages.

However, the Supreme Court reversed the decision and awarded nominal damages to the plaintiff. It found that nominal damages can redress a past injury, and the plea for one does not require a plea for compensatory damages to satisfy the redress-ability requirement.

The Supreme Court judge stated that nominal damages are purely symbolic and that the officials violated Uzuegbunam’s constitutional right.

Can a Court Award Nominal Damages in a Contract Claim?

It is not typical for a contract claim to seek nominal damages. Such a legal claim includes financial losses arising from a legal wrong, and the plaintiff seeks to recover damages, including compensatory damages, punitive damages, and restitution.

However, in some cases, nominal damages award may become crucial, and these include:

  • Cases where it is not possible to calculate property values
  • Mixed lawsuit cases that involve both a contract and a tort claim
  • Cases where the court finds that the defendant deceived the plaintiff.

Let’s examine how nominal damages may work in a contract claim case.

Jerry sues John because John did not provide the insurance promised to Jerry in the contract, and Jerry reached out to another company to help get insured. The court could rule in favor of Jerry but may only award nominal damages because Jerry did not suffer any financial losses from the breach of contract by John.

Do Courts Include Legal Fees When Awarding Nominal Damages?

In 1992, the Supreme Court in Farrar v. Hobby ruled that awarding legal fees in nominal damages may be unconstitutional as courts award $1 to the plaintiff, and there may be a significant difference between $1 and the attorney’s fees.

The approach is now known as “low award, low fee.” Although most states follow the Supreme Court’s ruling, there are some states where courts may include legal fees when awarding nominal damages.

Many legal experts are against the approach of “low award, low fee” for two reasons.

They believe that the Supreme Court ruling in Farrar v. Hobby is fragmented, and the factual records regarding the plaintiff’s constitutional rights violations are opaque, making the case a poor example for other courts to follow regarding the relationship between damage awards and calculating attorney’s fees.

The experts also believe that Congress emphasized vindicating constitutional rights and deterring others from violating another’s constitutional rights. The decision in Farrar v. Hobby discourages attorneys from pursuing cases where the plaintiff suffers constitutional harm.

Abridgment of constitutional rights is one of the examples of highly meritorious cases that the attorneys would not take because of the Farrar v. Hobby ruling. There is a need to incentivize attorneys to take up serious constitutional wrong cases.

Schedule a Free Consultation with Ehline Law

The right legal representation can make or break your case. Ehline Law has successfully handled thousands of personal injury cases and recovered more than $150 million in settlements and verdicts for injured victims.

If you suffered injuries in an accident that was not your fault, contact us at (833) LETS-SUE for a free consultation, as you may be eligible for monetary compensation. Our personal injury lawyers will help assess your case, calculate the actual damages, and hold the responsible party for your loss.

Michael Ehline

Michael Ehline in Tuxedo

Michael is a managing partner at the nationwide Ehline Law Firm, Personal Injury Attorneys, APLC. He’s an inactive Marine and became a lawyer on the California State Bar Law Office Study Program, later receiving his JD from UWLA School of Law. Michael has won some of the world’s largest motorcycle accident settlements. He compassionately helps clients recover after serious injuries.

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