As a personal injury lawyer in Sacramento, one of the first questions my clients always ask me is “How much is my personal injury case worth?”  And the answer is always the same – it depends!  Every case has its own facts, so while it’s impossible to say what any given case is worth, the following general guidelines can at least give you a general ideal of what you can possibly recover:

The Number One Rule of Personal Injury Lawsuits

The whole point of a personal injury lawsuit is to “make the injured person whole.”  This means placing him or her back in the exact position he was if the injury had never happened – not to get rich or make money.

So what can you recover for?  If you are injured, you can recover for every harm or damage that you suffered.  That is why the money received in a personal injury lawsuit is called “damages.”

1.  You can recover money for damaged property.

Most personal injury lawsuits in Sacramento come from car accidents.  Most people know that if your car gets damaged by the negligence of another driver, you can recover either (1) the cost to repair the car, or (2) the cost to replace the car (whichever is less).

What many people don’t know however, is that you are entitled to recover for all of your damaged property.  That means that if you had a car seat that has to be replaced, clothes that get ruined, or other valuables in the car when it was damaged, you can recover for those too.

2.  You can recover money to pay back medical expenses.

You may recover the cost of “reasonable and necessary” medical expenses.  This can cover anything from ER visits, to x-rays, to medicine, to surgery, to acupuncture – anything that will help the injured person get back to a healthy pain-free state.

Be warned, this isn’t the time to get that plastic surgery you have been wanting.  You can only recover for the medical expenses reasonably and necessarily caused by the injury for which you bring your lawsuit.

3.  You can receive money to pay for future medical expenses.

If your injury will cause you to continue to suffer into the future, you can recover a sum of money that will pay your future medical bills that you are “reasonably certain” to need in the future.

4.  You can recover money for lost wages.

If you miss time from work, you can recover any wages you lost.  You can only recover the money that you actually would have earned.  This means that if you get paid $500 per week, and you miss two weeks of work, you can recover $1,000.

On the other hand, you can’t claim that during the two weeks that you missed, you would have invented the next cure for cancer and demand a million dollars.

You can also recover your lost income even if your employer pays you while you are out sick, or if you use paid vacation days.  This means that if you get two weeks paid vacation per year, and you use that while you are out sick, you can get paid the $1,000 for the two weeks you missed, and still recover an additional $1,000 from the lawsuit.

5.  You can recover for lost earning capacity.

If the injury is so severe that it will prevent you from working into the future (if you were a carpenter, and you lose an arm for example) you are allowed to recover an amount of money that will make up for your lost earning capacity.

Be warned however, even with severe injuries, you will be expected to re-train yourself for some kind of job that you can reasonably accomplish.  An injury is not a golden ticket to no longer work.

6.  You can recover money for pain, suffering, disfigurement, and inconvenience.

If it were possible to waive a magic wand and make the pain, suffering, and distress that accompany an injury go away, that is what we would do.  Since that is not an option, we do the best thing we are able to do to make the injured person whole – award them money.  It may be an imperfect system, but its the best system we have, and its the law in California.

Unfortunately, any attorney will tell you that there is no formula convert pain and suffering into a dollar value.  It’s the job of the jury, or the lawyers negotiating a settlement to try to arrive at a fair number.  In general, this “pain and suffering” money can range from a few thousand dollars in minor cases, to millions of dollars in severe cases.

Having a competent lawyer is an important asset when negotiating the value of “pain and suffering” damages.

7.  In some cases, you can obtain money for punitive damages.

In some relatively rare cases, you can recover “punitive damages.”  In most personal injury lawsuits, any attorney can tell you that the purpose is to make the victim whole – not to punish the defendant.

However, in cases where the defendant acts maliciously, or purposefully engages in outrageous conduct, the court can award millions of dollars in “punitive damages” in order to punish the defendant.  This sometimes arises when corporations attempt to mislead, or abuse the public.  Large money penalties act as a financial incentive to prevent the defendant from continuing to engage in the wrongful behavior.

The above are just a general outline of some of the things that you can recover in a person injury lawsuit.  There are many other laws and rules, and if you have an injury, you should consult an attorney.

Noah F. Schwinghamer is a personal injury attorney practicing in Sacramento, California.