General, Special and Punitive Damages

There are three types of damages in personal injury claims: special, general, and punitive. (General and special damages are often considered together as compensatory damages; meaning damages intended to compensate the injury-victim for his or her injury-related losses.) For the sake of defining the distinct damage categories, let us imagine a hypothetical civil case. 

The plaintiff (the party seeking remedy in court) was driving while the intoxicated defendant, swerved into the plaintiff’s lane and struck her head-on. The plaintiff’s leg was broken, and as a result, she required surgery to place hardware to stabilize the fracture. She suffered the physical pain from the injury, a disfiguring surgical scar and severe anxiety of being hit again, when she is able to resume driving. 

Here are the damages that plaintiff could reasonably expect to be awarded by the court:

  • Special damages (economic losses) are awarded for things which can be easily calculated. These include medical bills and wages the plaintiff has already incurred up to the date of trial, and future medical expense and wage loss the plaintiff can reasonably be expected to be required, for the remainder of her life-expectancy-if she sustained a permanent injury.  
  • In this case, the plaintiff’s medical bills and wage loss (both past and future, if future losses are supported by her physician’s testimony) would  count as special damages. Most juries have little trouble calculating these damage categories, as the medical bills are easily totaled, and wage loss is easily arrived at by multiplying the missed weeks from work by her average weekly wage.  
  • General damages (non-economic damages) are awarded for things which are not easily accounted for, such as the money necessary to compensate her for (past and future)  physical pain, the anxiety she now has when driving, and the embarrassment she feels whenever the surgical scar is visible. These damages, which defy easy accounting, are commonly called “pain and suffering” damages.  

In this case, the pain, emotional distress, anxiety, and embarrassment the plaintiff suffered as the result of the collision could be compensated for by awarding general damages. 

  • Punitive damages are not intended to compensate the plaintiff to “make the plaintiff whole”. Punitive damages are awarded the plaintiff to punish the defendant and deter the defendant and others from drunk driving. 
  • In this case, the state of Minnesota’s no-tolerance policy against drunk driving may compel the judge to allow the jury to consider an award punitive damages to the plaintiff. Interestingly, Minnesota state law does not require the defendant to have been charged with or convicted of a DWI for punitive damages to apply to their case.

Damages Are Awarded for a Wide Range of Personal Injury Claims

We used an auto injury as an example of a personal injury claim in which general, special and punitive damages could all be awarded, but many other types of lawsuits could include multiple types of damages as well. As an example, consider the famous product liability case Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Co. The court awarded the plaintiff $2.5 million in compensatory damages for the death of his mother and the severe burns he suffered as the result of a design flaw in the Pinto’s gas tank. The court also awarded the plaintiff $3.5 million in punitive damages because Ford, (from a multitude of prior-rear-end collision fire cases), was aware of the Pinto’s inability to withstand a rear-end collision, and Ford’s neglect to recall the defectively designed Pinto, despite clear notice of the design defect. 

Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants is frequently cited as an example of a frivolous case, but upon closer scrutiny, makes perfect sense when the true facts are known. In Liebeck, the plaintiff, who was riding as a passenger in her daughter’s car, ordered coffee from a McDonald’s drive through. She asked for cream and the coffee was delivered with the plastic cover in place, requiring her to remove the cover to add the cream. As the vehicle was still stopped, she held the cup between her legs while using her hands to remove the cover. She was badly burned attempting to add cream when she spilled dangerously hot coffee on her lap. 

She sustained serious burns requiring several surgeries to graft healthy skin onto the burn sites. 

Her lawyer obtained records from McDonalds showing that dozens and perhaps hundreds of other customers had been burned by coffee served at a temperature too hot for safe consumption. The lawyer also learned the serving coffee too hot for safe human consumption was a McDonald’s corporate policy. Why? Because McDonald’s had a free coffee refill policy and had determined that free refills were fewer for in-store purchases when the coffee was served too hot; as the typical in-store customer would stay long enough to wait for the extremely hot coffee to cool sufficiently to request a free refill.

Once this information was revealed to the jury, it awarded the plaintiff $160,000 in compensatory damages for the medical care she required upon receiving third-degree burns. However, because the court also determined that McDonald’s had willfully and recklessly served scalding coffee, it allowed the jury decision to award the plaintiff several million dollars in punitive damages, later reduced by the presiding Judge to $480,000 in punitive damages.

If you are the victim of someone else’s negligent, reckless, or malicious conduct in the state of Minnesota, please contact our firm today for a free initial consultation. You may reach us by telephone at (763) 682-1082. Thomas Kiernan has over three decades of experience securing fair compensation for his clients, is certified as a Civil Trial Specialist and is committed to helping you obtain justice.