Understanding Damages: A Civil Approach

Damages. You hear the word used frequently in civil litigation cases, but few people truly understand what damages are. The starting place involves understanding the basis of civil law, and the differences between civil law and its criminal law counterpart.

Civil Versus Criminal: Blurring Lines

Many people confuse civil and criminal matters due to the fact that many civil matters have criminal components and vice versa. A criminal case is characterized such that the charges are being brought by the state, called the prosecution, in a criminal matter. The state is bringing the charges against the defendant for an alleged violation of a written code or law, the idea being that the defendant has committed a wrong against the community and the state will punish him or her for that behavior. The person is usually punished with jail time, probation, or fines.

Consequently, the civil litigation system provides punishments almost entirely by way of fines or performance. A civil case is filed not by the government, but by an individual or an entity that feels they have been wronged by another individual or entity. This type of lawsuit, then, is almost always between private parties and the person who was wronged or injured, called the plaintiff in a civil matter, who seeks compensation from the defendant. This compensation is broadly categorized as damages.

Take, for example, a drunk driving accident.  A drunk driving accident may have both civil and criminal components. If the drunk driver was pulled over and failed a field sobriety test, there may be a drunk driving charge, which would be criminal. If the driver hit, injured, or killed someone while drunk driving, there may also be vehicular homicide or reckless driving charges, which are also criminal. The government would decide whether to bring these claims. Consequently, if someone was injured or killed, the injured individual (or the deceased’s family, known as the estate) may seek compensation to cover the cost of medical expenses, property damage, pain and suffering, or, in the event of death, funeral and burial expenses.


Each type of compensation—whether it be to cover medical expenses, property damage, pain and suffering, etc.—is categorized broadly as damages. These damages may include some or all of the following depending on the type of case at issue:

Compensatory (Actual) Damages: These are the most commonly sought and most commonly awarded types of damages in the civil law system. Compensatory damages may include:

  • Medical bills incurred due to injury, and sometimes therapy/rehabilitation costs that may incur in the future due to the injury;
  • Disability and disfigurement;
  • Emotional distress (post traumatic stress disorder); and
  • Wages lost due to injury.

Non-Compensatory (Punitive) Damages: These types of damages are often awarded in cases against companies—punitive damages are designed to make an example out of the defendant and to deter similarly situated defendants from similar behavior in the future. Essentially, these types of damages attempt to send a message to the entity or person being sued not to engage in such behavior in the future, and serve as a warning to others that they will be punished if they act similarly in the future

Pennsylvania Personal Injury Attorneys

Regardless of whether you were in an auto accident, fell on someone’s land, or were injured due to the negligence of another, you do have significant legal rights. Our experienced personal injury attorneys at Solnick & Associates LLP know how to aggressively and compassionately advocate on your behalf to ensure that you receive the greatest amount of damages that you are entitled to by law. Contact our Jenkintown-based personal injury lawyers so we can help you navigate the legal system to reach a favorable resolution.