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Tort damages are monetary compensations awarded to individuals who have suffered harm due to another's wrongful act. There are three main types: compensatory, punitive, and nominal. Compensatory damages are further divided into actual, which cover direct costs like medical expenses, and general, for non-monetary harm such as pain and suffering. According to the National Center for State Courts, in 2005, the median compensatory award in tort cases was approximately $31,000.
Punitive damages are less common and are intended to punish the wrongdoer and deter similar conduct in the future. They are typically awarded in cases of gross negligence or intentional misconduct. Nominal damages are symbolic, often a small amount of money, acknowledging that a legal wrong occurred, but without significant loss to compensate. Each type of damage serves a distinct purpose in the justice system, aiming to make the injured party whole, punish the wrongdoer, or recognize an infringement of rights.
Tort damages are awarded at the end of a civil lawsuit if the judge or jury feels they are appropriate. There are three major types of tort damages in common legal usage: punitive, compensatory, and nominal. What type and extent of damages awarded will depend on the specifics of each case; some trials result in one type of damage award, while others may have both punitive and compensatory damages.
Punitive damages are awarded in cases where the judge or jury feels that the guilty party acted in an intentionally harmful, negligent, or inappropriate way. Instead of being calculated on real damage amounts, these damages may serve as a type of additional punishment meant to deter the guilty party from acting recklessly in the future. Punitive damages typically go above and beyond the amount required for the victim's real or measurable costs, and are usually intended more to punish the wrongdoer than reward or compensate the victim. Punitive damages are also meant to serve as a community deterrent or warning to the public not to undertake the same actions as the wrongdoer.
Compensatory damages are a very common form of tort damages; unlike punitive damages, which are meant to punish the wrongdoer, compensatory damages are meant to help restore a victim to his or her status prior to the unlawful act. The amount of compensatory damages is usually dependent on the measurable amount of damage done to the victim; medical costs, loss of business or employment, and destruction or damage to property are often used to calculate this type of tort damages.
In addition to monetarily measurable costs, compensatory damages may also include an amount given to the victim for pain, suffering, and emotional distress. While these qualities may not be estimated monetarily, if they are judged to be brought about by the convicted guilty party's unlawful behavior, he or she is still considered legally responsible. Since most torts can only award monetary damages, it is often up to the judge to make a reasonable decision on damages for emotional distress or pain. The awarding of emotional damages is also sometimes included in the consideration of punitive tort damages.
Nominal tort damages are a somewhat unusual form of compensation in civil trials. In general, nominal damages are a token fine paid to the victim in recognition of the fact that unlawful conduct did occur, but resulted in no meaningful monetary damages. This may be a simple payment that serves in the interest of justice, rather than in the duty of repayment for injury or damages. Nominal damages may also be awarded when damage is not readily estimable by the court.