What are damages?
In a legal case, “damages” refers to the money that you are seeking in order to compensate you for some legal wrong that was committed by the other party. The court may award you “damages,” which will be paid by the other side, if you can prove that you were harmed and the other party caused it.
A lawsuit in District Court usually involves “actual damages.” Actual damages are the amount of money the Court will allow for the actual harm that you have suffered because of:
- Some action by the other side or
- Something that the other side failed to do (that they should have done).
Actual damages are also called “compensatory damages.” This type of money award is designed to “compensate” you by returning you to the position you were in before the harm occurred. Usually damage awards cover items such as the cost of repairing or replacing your property, lost wages, or other expenses.
There are other kinds of damages, including:
- “Punitive damage” (additional money awarded to punish the defendant when the damage was caused deliberately and with malice);
- “Special damages” (awarded to cover related expenses such as lost wages resulting from an accident); or
- “Statutory damages” (awarded because the law specifically requires it).
If you think that one of these other kinds of damages might apply to your case, contact an attorney for advice. It will depend on your type of case, the facts of your case and whether you are suing in small claims court. You may decide that the case should be heard in Circuit Court. An attorney can help you to decide.
More about “actual” damages
- Actual damages may result from a “tort.” A tort is a civil wrong that someone commits against you; (for example, damaging your car in an auto accident).
- Actual damages may also result from a "breach of contract." A breach of contract occurs when someone fails to “make good” on a formal agreement made with you; (for example, an auto mechanic’s failure to make a repair for which you have paid). A contract can be written or oral. The existence of an oral contract can be harder to prove. The other side may not agree with your recollection of terms of your oral contract.
What do I need to prove?
It is not enough to go into Court and simply demand money damages. If you are the plaintiff (the person who started the case), then the law says that you have the "burden of proof." This means two things:
- First, it is your responsibility to prove to the court that your version of what happened is true. You must collect and submit to the court evidence that your version of the events is true.
- Second, there are different levels of “proof.” Your case must also meet certain legal requirements.
You may have seen television shows where lawyers use the term “beyond a reasonable doubt.” That is the level of “standard of proof” used in criminal trials.
In a non-criminal case like the case you have in District Court, you need to prove your case by a “preponderance of the evidence." This means that you must persuade the court that your version is more likely to be true than not to be true. Here is another way to look at this. You must show that over 50% of the believable evidence is in your favor.
The Court will consider whether:
- You have suffered a loss or injury that can be compensated with a fixed sum of money; and
- The party named in your complaint is the party responsible for your loss or injury.
How do I prove damages?
It will depend on the type of case you have and the facts of your case. Here is some general information.
First, research the law on your type of case. You have to understand the elements that are needed to prove your case.
Next, look at the facts of your case. What evidence can you collect to persuade the judge that: (1) you were harmed and that (2) the other side caused this harm directly or hurt you via their failure to act?
Remember that proving you have been harmed in some way is not necessarily the same as proving how much you should be compensated. It is your responsibility to prove to the judge that the amount you ask for is justified. It is up to the judge to decide damages, however, you should be prepared to make an argument for the amount that you think is fair.
If you are the defendant - You need to understand the law and what the plaintiff (the person who sued you) must prove. You can prepare in advance, but plan on being able to react to what the other side says during the trial. Your job is to show one or more of the following:
- You were not at fault.
- If you were at fault, the other side was not harmed or that someone else caused some (or all) of the harm.
- If the other side was harmed and it was your fault, you may be able to show that the award amount requested by the other side is incorrect or unfair.
- If the other side was harmed and it was your fault, you may also be able to show the extent of the damage may be partly due to failures of the other side to try and limit the damages you owe.