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Personal Injury & Medical Malpractice Blog

Friday, July 14, 2017

What is my Personal Injury Case Worth?

Most people have heard some version of the “McDonald’s Coffee Case”: an elderly woman accidentally spilled some hot McDonald’s coffee on herself, got burned, and ended up suing for millions of dollars.  While this version of events can be considered to be “based on a true story,” what actually happened in that case is much, much more complicated, and is a good example of why it’s so hard to predict what any particular personal injury case will be worth.

Compensatory Damages – Medical Expenses

Generally speaking, the purpose of a personal injury lawsuit is to return the injured party to as close a position as possible to where he or she would have been if the injury had not happened.  The most common way the court tries to accomplish this is to order the person who caused the injury to pay “compensatory damages,” or money paid to the injured party to cover his or her loss.  Some compensatory damages are easy to calculate, like medical expenses or property loss.  For example, in the McDonald’s case, the woman who was burned had to be hospitalized for 8 days with burns over 16% of her body.  During that time, her hospital bill soared to well over $10,000.  She was able to claim that money in compensatory damages.

Compensatory Damages – Lost Income

Other compensatory damages are not as easy to calculate, such as loss of income.  Lost income includes not only the money you won’t make while you’re healing from your injury, but also money that you won’t be able to make in the future because of it.  If you make $15 an hour for 40 hours each week, and you miss one week of work due to an injury, it’s easy enough to figure out you’ve lost out on $600 that week.  

But what if during that week you were supposed to attend a conference where you were going to pitch your new business idea to a group of investors, and because you didn’t go they invested in another business instead?  It’s possible to claim some of the money you would have made as a result of attending the conference you had to miss—but you’ll have to prove that you would have made the money if not for the injury!  That’s where having a good attorney comes in.

Compensatory Damages – Non-Economic

If some compensatory damages are not easy to calculate, others are downright difficult.  The court is allowed to award compensatory damages for things like pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of enjoyment of the things you used to be able to do before the injury, or loss of the companionship of your loved ones.  But how do you put a dollar figure on something like pain and suffering?  Ultimately that question is left to the judge or jury, which is why you need an experienced attorney to help you prove your case.

Punitive Damages

Finally, there are a handful of other calculations that can affect your damages in a personal injury case.  If the person who caused your injury acted particularly badly, the court can award ‘punitive damages,’ or damages meant to punish the offender.  In our McDonald’s case example, the jury decided that McDonald’s coffee was served too hot, and that McDonald’s had known about it for a long time because lots of other people had been badly burned.  But McDonald’s kept serving their coffee too hot anyway, so the jury awarded the burned woman $2.7 million in punitive damages, or approximately two days’ worth of McDonald’s profits from coffee sales.  

Contributory Negligence

On the other hand, the court will also consider “contributory negligence.”  This means that your award of damages will be reduced by the amount that your own actions caused the injury—so if you had damages worth $100, but the court decided your injuries were 20% your fault, then you would only get $80.  Similarly, you are responsible for “mitigating” damages, or stopping them from getting worse if you can.  For example, if you are a landlord and your tenant leaves one month into a year-long lease, you need to at least try to find someone else to move in for the remaining 11 months.  If you don’t try, the court can decide you failed to mitigate damages, and may not hold the person responsible for all the damages you experienced because you could have prevented at least part of them.

The bottom line is that the value of even relatively simple personal injury cases can be extremely difficult to predict. There are dozens of factors the court must consider, and ultimately it will come down to how convincing a case you can put on.

Talk to New York personal injury lawyer Arthur O. Tisi now at 1-917-789-1390 for a FREE consultation to learn more about how you can obtain compensation for your injuries.


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