Updated November 5, 2020:

General damages are awards of money given to the plaintiff in a lawsuit by the defendant to make reparations for injuries or a breach of contract in cases when it is difficult to calculate a dollar value for the amount. These awards may be related to pain, suffering, or other physical losses as well as failure to satisfy the terms of a contract. 

Some examples of cases in which general damages are awarded include:

  • Car accidents in which the victims have suffered injuries.
  • Medical cases involving medical malpractice.
  • Wrongful death.

Differences Between General and Compensatory Damages

When losses are difficult to put a monetary value on, general damages are awarded. Some losses simply cannot be proven with a receipt. If an injury results in expensive medical bills, that amount can be placed on invoices by hospitals, doctors, and other healthcare providers. However, you can't place a dollar value on pain. 

If a contract is breached, there are situations when you can specify dollar values of items or services not received. However, a loss of future business is not so easy to quantify.

General damages are a type of compensatory damages, which are granted by a court in a lawsuit to repay losses or injuries resulting from another person's wrongdoing. If the plaintiff can prove that the defendant's actions directly led to the loss or injury, the defendant will be ordered to pay damages. The court must then decide how much compensation must be paid, and this amount depends on many variables.

General damages that are awarded for pain and suffering in the U.S. are typically calculated as three to four times the amount of the plaintiff's medical bills and added to the amount that is actually meant to cover the bills.

In addition to pain and suffering, situations that qualify for general damages include:

  • Loss of reputation
  • Loss of enjoyment of life
  • Disfigurement

Evaluation of general damages is subject to the court's opinion instead of being specific and provable. The victim's suffering may be interpreted in different ways depending on the parties and their own interests in the case. Factors include:

  • The amount of pain that has been suffered, and the duration of the pain.
  • How the pain has disrupted the plaintiff's daily life.
  • The details about the negligence and recklessness of the party who caused the losses.
  • Stress and worry over the injury or the case.
  • “Loss of consortium,” meaning that the plaintiff is missing out on family relationships and the benefits they provide.
  • Loss of enjoyment that the injury has caused.

Types of Damages

General damages are just one type of damage that may be awarded to the plaintiff in a court case. The others are special damages and punitive damages.

General damages and special damages are compensatory damages, which means they are meant to repay the plaintiff for the loss they have suffered. Punitive damages, however, are given specifically to punish the guilty party for their wrongdoing and prevent them from doing such a thing again in the future. 

Special damages are awarded to the plaintiff as restitution for losses that can be given a specific dollar amount thanks to written estimates, receipts, or bills. If there is a car accident, the plaintiff may ask for restitution for expenses related to repairing damage to the vehicle, damage to other property that was in the car at the time of the accident, and medical bills to treat his injuries. 

Special damages also cover the days he may miss from work due to the injuries because it's possible to put a dollar amount on the unearned salary even if it's not exact. A statement from the plaintiff's employer can include his usual wage and the hours he did not work due to the injury.

General damages, on the other hand, are harder to prove. To prove emotional distress, for example, you may need to visit a psychiatrist who can give expert testimony regarding your mental state. For this reason, it is vital to hire an experienced attorney who knows how to obtain all the proof needed for an accurate calculation

Every case is different, but since it's difficult to quantify general damages, most courts use a basic formula to calculate the amount due. It includes the total dollar amount for provable special damages multiplied by a general damages multiplier. The multiplier is the variable factor that an attorney can influence.

If you need more information or help with general damages, you can post your legal need on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.