Non-Economic Damages in California Personal Injury Cases

Personal injury law is about compensating victims for their catastrophic injuries. In California the legal system provides for both economic and non-economic damages. Economic (or special) damages includes all of the quantifiable costs incurred by the victim as a result of the defendant’s negligence. This includes medical bills, property damage, lost wages, and even the loss of job opportunities or other future income.

In contrast non-economic (or general) damages are designed to compensate the victim for emotional and psychological injuries. Obviously, it is impossible to precisely calculate these damages, which broadly include pain and suffering, emotional distress, and impairment of quality of life. This is why it is important to present a jury with as much information as possible regarding non-economic damages, so they can properly determine an award that fully compensate the victim.

Can a Jury Award Zero Damages for Pain and Suffering?

As a matter of law in California, a jury cannot decide to award zero non-economic damages when it finds the plaintiff suffered a physical injury at the hands of the defendant. For example, in a 2007 decision, a California appeals court held a jury erred when it ruled the victim of medical malpractice was entitled to no damages for pain and suffering. This was illogical, the court explained, “A plaintiff who is subjected to a serious surgical procedure must necessarily have endured at least some pain and suffering in connection with the surgery.” While the jury had wide discretion to ascertain the exact scope of such pain and suffering, “common experience tells us it cannot be zero.”

In a more recent decision, another appeals court found a non-economic damages award of just $5,000 was not clearly “inadequate.” In this case, a 91-year-old woman living in a nursing home fell off a curb while under the supervision of a caregiving service. She suffered a hip fracture and was subsequently confined to a wheelchair and forced to move into a 24-hour care facility.

The victim sued the caregiving service and other defendants for damages in connection with her fall. The case was tried before a jury. Ultimately, the caregiving service was found negligent and ordered to pay over $170,000 in economic damages, mostly for the future cost of her medical and residential care. The jury also decided to award just $5,000 in non-economic damages.

The victim appealed this low award. But the appeals court said that $5,000 was not “so meager as to shock the conscience” and require a reassessment. The court noted there was “a substantial conflict in the evidence as to [the victim’s] mental condition and quality of life before the fall, and the extent to which her condition thereafter was really due to the fall.”

Do You Need Help Proving Damages?

At the end of the day, the burden is always on the plaintiff to prove damages, both economic and non-economic. Working with a skilled Pasadena personal injury lawyer is the best way to ensure you present your strongest case in court. Contact Strassburg, Gilmore, & Wei, Attorneys at Law, if you have a catastrophic injury or wrongful death claim and need to speak with someone right away.

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