How Much is my Personal Injury Case Worth in California?
In California, an individual who suffers injury in a car accident, slip and fall, or other personal injury case may be able to recover "damages" (the monetary losses you have suffered as a result of your injury) from the liable (legally responsible) party. In the case of a car accident, it is often an insurance company that pays the damages award. The damages award can either be determined by settlement or after a trial. You can determine the value of a personal injury case by the amount of damages involved.
The different types of damages in California personal injury cases are discussed below. This article only provides a general overview. An injured individual should always seek the advice of experienced counsel.
Compensatory Damages in California Personal Injury Cases
Compensatory damages are meant to "make whole" the injured individual with money damages. They serve to compensate the individual for his/her losses as a result of the accident/other wrongful act. Compensatory damages include the following:
Medical expenses/bills: In California, an injured individual can recover damages for the cost of past medical care the individual had to undergo as a result of the accident and any necessary future medical expenses. This means you will recover for the medical bills you (or your insurance company) had to pay. If your medical insurance provider paid your medical bills, the insurance company may assert a lien against any recovery you do obtain. Because you can recover for future medical expenses, you need to have a good idea of what your lifetime medical expenses are going to be as a result of the injury so that you can recover them in your lawsuit.
Damaged property: You can recover for property that is damaged by the wrongful conduct of the liable party. For example, in a car accident case, you can recover for the damage to your vehicle or personal property in your vehicle that was damaged.
Lost income: You may be able to recover both past and future lost income. This includes recovery for the days of work you missed as a result of the accident (for example, while you were recovering or were seeking medical treatment). It also includes future income that you will not be able to make as a result of the accident. If your job requires physical labor and you won't be able to do your job anymore because of a permanent injury, your damages award could include significant lost future income.
Pain and suffering: You can recover monetary damages for the pain and suffering you endured during and immediately after the accident. You can also recover for pain that you continue to endure after the accident. These types of damages can be harder to calculate because they are not as easily quantifiable, but the damages are likely to be commensurate with the severity of the injury and the extent of your other damages.
Emotional distress: Emotional distress damages compensate a personal injury plaintiff in California for the plaintiff's mental distress. This includes damages for terror, shock, nervousness, anxiety, confusion, worry, sorrow, and humiliation.
Loss of consortium: In California, a victim's spouse or domestic partner can bring his/her own separate claim for loss of consortium. Loss of consortium damages are for the loss of love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society, moral support. In addition, loss of consortium are for the loss of enjoyment of sexual relations as a result of the accident/injury.
Punitive Damages in California Personal Injury Cases
In cases where the defendant's conduct was particularly egregious or reckless, the personal injury victim may be able to recover what are called "punitive damages." Punitive damages are meant to punish and make an example of the defendant for his wrongful conduct. Therefore, punitive damages are not compensatory damages (which are meant to make the victim whole).
Punitive damages might be recoverable where, for example, the defendant was driving drunk and injured the plaintiff.
Punitive damages are subject to a higher standard and are difficult to obtain in most cases. California Civil Code Section 3294 provides as follows: "In an action for the breach of an obligation not arising from contract, where it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant has been guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice, the plaintiff, in addition to the actual damages, may recover damages for the sake of example and by way of punishing the defendant."
The amount of punitive damages awarded will often be proportionate to the award of compensatory damages.
Possible Reductions in the Damages Award in California Because of the Plaintiff's Conduct
A plaintiff's actions can substantially impact the damaged recoverable in a personal injury case, primarily because of the plaintiff's own negligence or because of the plaintiff's failure to mitigate his/her damages:
Comparative negligence: In California, if the plaintiff is partially at fault, the damages that the plaintiff will recover will be reduced by that plaintiff's percentage of fault. For example, if a plaintiff is seeking $100,000 in damages and the court determines that the plaintiff was 10% at fault for a car accident, the plaintiff will recover $90,000 in damages (which represents a 10% or $10,000 reduction in the damages that the plaintiff can recover).
Failure to mitigate damages: California law requires that personal injury plaintiffs mitigate their damages. In other words, they are required to take steps to reduce the damages that they will suffer as a result of the accident. For example, if a plaintiff negligently fails to seek immediate medical treatment for a small wound, which then becomes infected and requires more substantial medical care, the defendant may be able to argue that the plaintiff should not be able to recover damages for the more substantial medical care. So plaintiffs must actively try to minimize their damages where possible.
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