Apart from legislation granting a right to sue for a specific harm, personal injury law generally consists of tort law and the civil procedure for enforcing it. Most scholars agree that tort law has four purposes: (1) compensation for damages; (2) financial responsibility; (3) deterrence; and (4) avoiding self-help. This article discusses the purpose of compensation.
Every victim of a tort suffers at least one legal injury. A legal injury is a violation of a legal right. The legal injury usually causes financial harm to the victim, such as the cost of repairing or replacing something or the cost of treatment for a some physical injury. Because a legal injury usually causes financial harm to the victim, justice requires that the victim be entitled to receive financial compensation from the person who committed the tort for the financial harm caused. Indeed, tort law does generally provide financial compensation for the financial harm caused by a violation of tort law.
In tort law, the financial harms suffered by a victim are known as damages. The financial compensations that tort law awards to victims — the financial compensation that tort law obligates the person who committed the tort to pay — are also known as damages. The person who committed the tort is said to be liable for those damages. In short, tort law establishes liability for damages.
Kinds of Damages
In tort law, there are three kinds of damages.
Compensatory damages are damages designed to pay for the actual harm that the victim suffered as a result of a legal injury. Compensatory damages are designed to make the victim “whole.”
Nominal damages are damages designed to vindicate the victim’s right to sue were actual harm has not been suffered as a result of a legal injury. Because actual damages are an element of the tort of negligence, nominal damages cannot be awarded in a negligence case.
Punitive damages are damages designed to punish the person who committed the tort whether or not actual harm has been suffered as a result of a legal injury. Punitive damages are awarded when the conduct of the person who committed the tort is found to be malicious, wanton, or willful.