What are “Damages" in Civil Litigation?


Damages are a critical component of civil litigation. They represent, in large part, the monetary compensation awarded to a plaintiff who has suffered a loss or injury due to the defendant's actions. Understanding damages is essential for anyone involved in a civil lawsuit, whether they are a plaintiff seeking damages or a defendant denying damages. Here's an overview of what damages are in civil litigation and the different types of damages that may be awarded.


Types of Damages in Civil Litigation


There are several types of damages that may be awarded in civil litigation, and they can be generally categorized into compensatory, punitive, and nominal damages.


• Compensatory Damages


These damages are intended to compensate the plaintiff for actual losses incurred. Compensatory damages can be further broken down into two subcategories:


  • Special Damages: These cover out-of-pocket expenses and losses that are easy to quantify, such as medical bills, lost earnings, property damage, and other financial losses.
  • General Damages: These are awarded for non-monetary harm that is not easy to quantify, such as pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of consortium, or reduced quality of life.


•  Punitive Damages


Also known as exemplary damages, punitive damages are awarded in cases where the defendant’s conduct was particularly egregious or reprehensible. The aim of punitive damages is to punish the wrongdoer and deter similar conduct in the future. Not all civil cases are eligible for punitive damages; they are typically reserved for situations involving fraud, malice, or intentional wrongdoing.


• Nominal Damages


When a plaintiff has not suffered significant harm or loss but has still experienced a legal wrong, a court may award nominal damages. These are a symbolic sum of money, often a very small amount, which acknowledges that a breach of duty or infringement of the plaintiff’s rights occurred.


• Statutory Damages


In some cases, statutes may prescribe a set amount of damages to be awarded for certain types of legal violations, regardless of the actual harm suffered by the plaintiff. These are known as statutory damages and are common in cases involving copyright infringement or violations of consumer protection laws.


• Liquidated Damages


Sometimes, contracts contain provisions that specify the amount of damages to be paid in the event of a breach. These are known as liquidated damages, and they are predetermined by the parties at the time the contract is formed.




Understanding the different types of damages is important for anyone involved in civil litigation. It can help plaintiffs set realistic expectations for the compensation they might receive and aid defendants in understanding their potential financial exposure. Damages are a fundamental part of civil lawsuits and are instrumental in achieving fairness and justice within the legal system.


In each case, the evidence presented, the legal standards that apply, and the jurisdiction in which the case is heard can all influence the types of damages awarded and the amount of compensation.


For a more comprehensive look at Damages in civil litigation, check out the Self Rep Edge Video Series and Civil Litigation Workbook.