What are General Damages?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 19 January 2020
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In legal terms, general damages refers to any type of compensation that is sought in a lawsuit, but is not tied to any type of specific aspect of the suit itself. Sometimes referred to as a pain and suffering, this type of compensation is often tied to situations where it is somewhat difficult to determine the scope of the damages that are appropriate, or even if the situation warrants the awarding of general damages. With most court systems around the world that recognize the concept of compensation for such factors as emotional pain, loss of reputation, or other intangibles, it is up to the judge hearing the case to determine if general damages are appropriate.

Because the law systems in various countries are different, compensation that would be classified as general damages in one may not enjoy the same status in another nation. For example, some countries have specific legal statutes that relate to pain and suffering caused due to ongoing physical pain and injury, including disfigurement. Others would consider this to fall more into the category of general damages, and award compensation accordingly.


The assessment of general damages is based on the premise that the compensation being sought by the plaintiff in a lawsuit can be proven to have occurred, but is not related to any other class or category of damages that is defined in the laws of the land. If it is possible to prove to the satisfaction of the judge hearing the case that the plaintiff is indeed entitled to some sort of compensation, it is then the responsibility of the judge to determine what amount would be appropriate. While legal counsel for the plaintiff can certainly recommend a figure, and normally does so in the documents filed with the court, the judge is responsible for making the final determination. In most jurisdictions, the judge is bound by any guidelines put in place by the jurisdiction, as well as use his or her own judgment to determine the breadth and depth of the events surrounding the damages.

All too often, litigants assume they can claim general damages without any real proof that they have incurred some type of loss as a result of the actions of the defendant. There are those that have the mistaken idea that if the defendant created situations where the plaintiff was distressed, but otherwise was able to function normally, that general damages is still likely to apply. Unless evidence is presented to the judge that proves some amount of loss has occurred, the chances of being awarded general damages is extremely slim.


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Post 2

@Logicfest -- True, and insurance companies will often use the same type of formula, only they multiply by a smaller number. If the attorney is multiplying special damages by five, the insurance company my multiply by three. Both sides, then, hope to meet somewhere in the middle through negotiation.

If they can't agree, it is off to court. That is exactly why it is usually better to settle. Having any case tied up in court these days can take a heck of a lot of time to resolve. Plus, attorneys take those cases on contingency and they will usually take a larger chunk of the settlement if the case goes to trial.

Post 1

In the United States, a lot of lawyers take the out-of-pocket expenses -- medical bills and such -- and apply a multiplier when trying to settle. Let's say that those out-of-pocket expenses (called special damages) total $5,000. A lawyer might decide to settle the case for $25,000 by multiplying the special damages by five.

It is not an exact science, but using special damages as a starting point to determine what general damages should be is very common.

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