Car Accidents and Personal Injury Damages: What can I recover?

You've been injured in a car accident, and you know that you need to hire a personal injury attorney. But what types of damages damages can you recover?

In the United States, this question falls under the area of tort law. Personal injury cases operate under the "make-whole" principle; that is, the court's objective is to return the tort victim to the position he or she enjoyed prior to the accident and make them whole.

Of course, this is a tricky subject, and those who have been injured in car accidents need experienced legal counsel to ensure that they receive full and fair compensation. Some types of damages, such as pain and suffering, are difficult to quantify, and you need an experienced personal injury attorney to act on your behalf.

In other words, a skilled attorney can convince a jury to award full and fair compensation. But how do personal injury attorneys calculate these sums? Broadly speaking, they divide tort damages into three categories:

1.) Special or economic damages are easier to predict, because they encompass measurable financial losses caused by injury. If someone runs a red light and crashes into your car, causing an injury, you may be entitled to special damages for lost wages, both past and future (if your injury reduces your ability to work full-time); current and future medical expenses; and even reduced "service" capacity, such as your ability to perform household chores.

At trial, forensic economists use complex formulas to calculate special damages, taking into account the tort victim's age, income, and life expectancy.  

For example, in the book Personal Injury and Wrongful Death Damage Calculations: Transatlantic Dialogue, John Ward and Robert Thornton provide a sample calculation for lifetime earning capacity in an imaginary case. They start with the fictional tort victim's yearly income of $75,000. Supposing this character is 30 years old when he's injured too badly to return to work, the authors calculate the victim's "expected earning capacity" for each year up to retirement at age 66.

They use detailed multipliers: the average pay increases based on age for people who share the victim's job; projections on industry growth that could lead to changes in earnings; even the effects of inflation. In the end, they add up the expected earning capacity for each year in this injured man's pre-retirement life, ending with a sum of $2,833,359.

Given all of these details, you can see how each case differs so dramatically. Even if a car accident doesn't injure you as badly as the character in this example, though, you may still be entitled to significant damages.

2.) General or non-economic damages compensate tort victims for all the troubles resulting from injury that don't easily boil down into clear numbers. You've probably heard of "pain and suffering" related to personal injury cases; this is one area of damages that falls into the genera or non-economic damages category. At trial, you can recover damages for past pain and suffering which you’ve already endured, as well as future pain and suffering if you’re injuries are permanent and you will be dealing with them the rest of your life. Moreover, if injuries from a car collision reduces the victim's quality of life -- through disfigurement or disability, for instance -- that also falls under general or non-economic damages.

Because this category is so subjective, it is often difficult to predict the actual dollar amounts of these types of damages. Again, this is why a skilled legal team is crucial for a fair outcome on your injury case. Experienced trial attorneys have the knowledge and skill to persuade a jury to fully and fairly compensate you for all of these harms and losses.

3.) Finally, in some cases, juries award tort victims punitive damages. To trigger these payments, your legal team needs to prove intentionally reckless conduct or ill will on the part of the wrongdoer. For example, if someone simply hits your car by failing to observe a stop sign, that case wouldn't involve punitive damages. If an angry ex t-bones your car intentionally, however, that's another story. Or, if a drunk driver hits you that could give rise to punitive damages. As the name suggests, punitive damages are intended as a punishment.

Hopefully, you'll never find yourself in a personal injury lawsuit. If you are injured in a car accident, though, call Wilkins Schneller at 314-588-8000 for a detail-oriented, personal approach to your case.      



Ward, John O. and Robert J. Thornton. Personal Injury and Wrongful Death Damages Calculations : Transatlantic Dialogue. vol. 1st ed, Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 2009. Contemporary Studies in Economic and Financial Analysis. EBSCOhost.