What are the legal definitions of damage and damages? Do they mean different things?

The legal definitions of damage and damages mean different things. The legal definition of damage is loss or harm resulting from injury to a person, property, or reputation. The legal definition of damages, on the other hand, refers to compensation – such as a monetary judgment – provided to a person who has suffered a loss or harm due to the unlawful act or omission of another.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Jun 1, 2021

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In the legal world, damage is defined as a loss or harm resulting from injury to a person, property or reputation. Damages, on the other hand, refers to compensation – such as a monetary judgment – provided to a person who has suffered a loss or harm due to the unlawful act or omission of another. The person at fault – the one who caused the loss or harm – must compensate (or pay) the injured party for his or her losses, i.e. he must pay his damages for the damage he caused.

What is the definition of damages?

Damages is an important concept under the law because unless a party suffers damage (i.e. a loss), he will not be paid damages (monetary compensation). Picture, for example, a situation in which a contract is breached: Joe has a contract to buy a boat from Stan for $400. If Stan decides not to sell Joe the boat specified in the contract (aka breaches the contract) but instead gives Joe an even better boat for free, then Joe technically has suffered a breach of contract. However, because he did not suffer any financial loss or harm (aka he did not suffer any damage), he cannot sue and collect damages for breaches of contract.

Proving damages is also important in a personal injury case. This can especially be an issue in medical malpractice cases based on missed symptoms of an illness. The injured party will need to prove that the doctor’s negligence – i.e. missing the symptoms – caused him to suffer damage. If the doctor can successfully argue that the plaintiff’s illness would have caused the exact same type and extent of damage even if it had been diagnosed properly, then the plaintiff will not be viewed as suffering any actual damage as a result of the doctor’s negligence. Thus he won’t be able to collect damages, even if the doctor was negligent.

Read on to learn more about the types of damages below.

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What are compensatory damages?

Compensatory damages to compensate you for your injuries and damages. Compensatory damages are money awarded to a plaintiff in civil court cases where loss has occurred as a result of the negligence or unlawful conduct of another party.

Compensatory damages are further categorized into special damages and general damages. Special damages compensate the injured person for losses suffered due to the defendant’s actions. Special damages are expenses that are determined by calculating all the plaintiff’s quantifiable financial losses. In a car accident, the at-fault party is liable for the value of the other driver’s totaled vehicle. 

Unlike special damages, the general type of damages is meant to compensate for the direct effects of the accident, where the injuries of the victim are a result of the defendant’s actions or behavior.

For example, if you were involved in a car accident that broke your vehicle or collarbone, and as a result, you weren’t able to work for six weeks, you would be compensated for your property damages, medical expenses, and lost wages. Compensatory damages are calculated by adding up the total costs of the accident.

To get compensatory damages, the plaintiff has to prove that a loss occurred and was attributable to the defendant. The plaintiff must also quantify the amount of loss before the jury or judge in courts.

Examples of actual compensatory damages include: 

  • Medical and hospital bills
  • Medical treatments
  • Rehabilitation expenses
  • Physical therapy
  • Ambulance expenses
  • Medicine and Prescription drugs
  • Nursing home care
  • Domestic services
  • Medical equipment
  • Lost wages or lost employment income
  • Increased living expenses
  • Property replacement or repair
  • Transportation

Examples of general compensatory damages:

  • Mental anguish
  • Disfigurement
  • Future medical expenses
  • Future lost wages
  • Long-term physical pain and suffering
  • Loss of consortium
  • Inconvenience
  • Loss of enjoyment of life
  • Loss of opportunity

What are exemplary damages?

Whereas compensatory damages are created to compensate the victim, exemplary or punitive damages are meant to punish the defendant for outrageous conduct or discourage the defendant from engaging in conduct that would lead to a lawsuit. Although the purpose of punitive damages is not to compensate the plaintiff, the plaintiff will receive all or some of the punitive damage awards.

Not every case receives awards of punitive damages because most defendants do not usually act maliciously when they harm someone. For example, if a driver forgets to check his blind spot before changing lanes and hits the car driving next to him, an award for punitive damages would not be appropriate. Yet, if someone is drunk driving, goes 75 mph through a school zone, and hits a school bus, then punitive awards of damages may be applied.

Exemplary damages are not automatically given. The plaintiff must first be entitled to an award of compensatory damages, restitution, or nominal damages (the defendant must act with malice). The exemplary damages must correspond to the amount of the actual damages.

These damages are calculated based on the compensatory damages awarded to the plaintiff. In most states, the plaintiff may receive up to about three times the compensatory awards.

How can you get legal help?

For more information on damages and for assistance in determining what your potential damages may be after an injury, you should strongly consider speaking with a lawyer.

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