The consequences of an unexpected accident can be devastating. Fortunately, accident victims in California have the right to demand compensation if someone else is responsible for their harm. Whether they decide to pursue insurance benefits or damages from a civil lawsuit, the money they receive can be instrumental in their recovery.

It is important to know what type of damages accident victims may be able to recoup if they’ve been injured in a California accident. The answer will depend on a thorough assessment of the cause and extent of the accident. The results of your investigation will help to devise a strategy to recover all applicable damages, including economic, non-economic, and punitive.

Economic Damages

The financial costs of an accident can vary significantly depending on the type of accident, with car accidents often being the most costly. In California, injured victims have the right to recoup economic damages, which help to compensate for the verifiable financial losses related to their accident.

While it is best to wait until a victim has fully recovered from his or her injuries to determine an appropriate value, it is possible to calculate economic damages early on in a lawsuit.  Economic damages can include compensation for past expenses, current expenses, as well as projected future costs that can be reasonably calculated.

Examples of economic damages include those for:

  • Medical bills
  • Transportation and lodging necessary to obtain medical treatment
  • Rehabilitation
  • Nursing care
  • Medical assistive devices
  •   Home alterations and construction made necessary because of a disability
  •   Lost wages or income during recovery
  • Loss of future earnings
  • Value of lost business opportunities
  • Property damage or replacement, and
  • Reduced earning capacity.

Economic damages cannot be awarded in excess of the plaintiff’s actual calculated (and projected) financial losses. Calculating certain losses, including those relating to earning capacity and disability, will require a thorough investigation as well as consultations with vocational experts.

Non-Economic Damages

Many injuries do not have a direct and identifiable financial consequence. However, this does not mean that these injuries are any less debilitating or severe. The fact that these injuries are hard to value in terms of dollars and cents should not prevent accident victims from recovering much-needed compensation.

In order to ensure that accident victims can be compensated for all of their injuries, California permits the recovery of non-economic damages.

Examples of non-economic damages include those for:

  • Chronic pain
  • Suffering
  • Emotional trauma
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Embarrassment
  • Disfigurement and scarring
  • Loss of companionship
  • Loss of consortium
  • Loss of enjoyment of life, and
  • Inconvenience.

These injuries are incredibly personal and subjective. In order to make sure that these injuries are properly valued, it is important to thoroughly document the effect these injuries have on accident victims and determine how the injury interferes with their life. The more evidence there is to support the extent of an injury, the greater the chance of maximizing its value.

There is generally no cap on the amount of non-economic damages that can be awarded in California. However, there is an exception for injuries that are the result of medical malpractice. Non-economic damages awarded in medical injury cases will be capped at $250,000.

Punitive damages

Punitive damages are not awarded to help a victim recover from his or her injuries. Instead, these damages are ordered to punish the defendant for reprehensible actions. In California, punitive damages are reserved for only the most extreme situations.

Punitive damages may only be awarded when:

  1. The plaintiff is awarded actual damages, and
  2. There is clear and convincing evidence that the defendant acted with malice, oppression, or fraud.

In other words, punitive damages are only available when a defendant demonstrates a clear and conscious disregard for the safety of others and the victim suffers identifiable harm.

When awarded, punitive damages will be subject to strict limits. Any award of punitive damages cannot be excessive and must bear some relationship to compensatory damages (economic and non-economic) awarded in a case. How much is too much? The Supreme Court has held that “few awards exceeding a single-digit ratio” will be acceptable. So, punitive awards can likely range from 1 to 9 times as much as an award of compensatory damages.


John Rapillo, a founding member of The Law Offices of John Rapillo, has over 30 years of experience handling complex personal injury matters in Orange County, CA. He fights to protect the interests of injured accident victims across Southern California.