San Mateo County Attorney Reuben J. Donig: Non-economic damages actually go by three different names. They all mean the same thing. Some people just call them pain and suffering. They’re also legally known as “general damages” or “non-economic damages”. And what they are is the amount… It’s a way to try to measure the amount of harm that a person has suffered as a result of their injuries that is not part of their economic damages, it’s not part of their out-of-pocket expenses, or cost, or medical expenses, or income loss, or other components of economic damages.
The law provides for compensation for non-economic damages as well as economic damages. And the concept is, if you can imagine that scale of justice that’s supposed to be in balance, if you have been injured by someone else, that balance is no longer equal. It’s out of balance, if you will. You have been harmed by financial losses for you medical expenses and income loss, but you’ve also been harmed by your pain and suffering, and the law says that the other side must give you compensation, must pay you money that is equal in someway, to the harm that you suffered to bring things back into balance. So let’s exclude for the moment the economic damages. You still have that pain and suffering, those non-economic damages. How much money will it take to compensate you for the harm that you’ve suffered? Well, what is pain and suffering? What does is it consist of? What are the elements?
Well, if somebody is hurt, it affects their overall life in many ways. Some people don’t sleep well at night because of the pain, and as a result of lack of sleep, they’re tired, they’re not as fully functional, their health may take a downturn. That’s part of the pain, and that’s part of the suffering. If a person is injured or loses a limb, they can no longer partake in certain activities that they used to partake in, some of which are necessary activities of daily living; being able to button your shirt, tie your tie, go shopping, do the laundry, take care of your family, take care of your children. Some of them are recreational activities; if you like to play the violin or the piano, or to play tennis or baseball, or go running or jogging, and you can’t do that anymore. That’s a loss to you of your life or lifestyle choices. It’s a loss of your freedom. If you have to rely on other people to drive you places because you can no longer drive or you can no longer use your legs, it’s a loss of your ability to make your own choices, how you want to live your life.
If you are unable to interact with your family as before, because you are tired or cranky or because you are hurt, you have a loss of what’s called “consortium”, or loss of the relationship with your family. Sometimes you’re unable to become intimate with a spouse or loved one. That’s called of the “loss of consortium”. There is compensation that you’re entitled to to bring that back into balance. You don’t enjoy life as before. You are not able to go out socially with your friends, sit through a movie, go out to dinner, go dancing. These are all things that you’ve lost as a result of your injuries that need to be compensated.
Occasionally you come across a situation where, maybe you were planning on going on a vacation and you had to cancel it. I’ve had cases where… I had a young woman whose grandmother lived in Hong Kong. Her grandmother was sick. She already had a plane ticket to go and visit her dying grandmother when my client got hit by a bus. She lost the ability to fly and see her grandmother that last time. Or another client who was badly injured and was tied down to a hospital bed while her mother, whom she had seen almost daily and who lived to be 97, died. She died while my client was in the hospital bed. My client was unable to spend that last night of her mother’s life by her mother’s bedside. Those are huge losses. They’re emotional losses that a person suffers as a result of their injuries, and those all need to be compensated for. Even though money doesn’t really compensate you, it’s the best that we have, and the law provides that monetary compensation must be given in an amount that is equal to the harm that was sustained or experienced by the injured person.
(Attorney Reuben Donig specializes in personal injury law and premises liability, including auto and car accidents in San Mateo County, Santa Clara County, Alameda County and San Francisco County. Visit him at www.doniglaw.com if you have a question you’d like to ask).