If you or your business needs to bring a lawsuit, it’s natural to wonder whether you may be entitled to recover millions of dollars. You read about celebrities winning $115 million against magazines who published unauthorized photos, or you hear about women winning millions of dollars against fast-food chains after spilling hot coffee into their laps. Litigation sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Short of winning the lottery, how else can someone obtain so much money is so short a time with such a small amount of effort? Well, the people you hear about who have won enormous monetary awards in court (at least those that have been upheld on appeal) generally have one thing in common: they suffered an enormous amount of harm as a result of something truly devastating that was done to them, causing them severe pain, extreme emotional distress, or vast economic hardship. In other words, those winning huge jury verdicts tend to be those who have suffered the most pain. You don’t necessarily want to be that person.
The legal term we use when referring to financial awards obtained in court is “damages,” of which there are essentially two types, compensatory and punitive. Compensatory damages are those designed to compensate a plaintiff for the loss or injury actually suffered as a result of the defendant’s conduct. It includes things like damage to property, personal injuries, physical pain, lost economic expectations, and emotional suffering. Compensatory damages are not supposed to give the plaintiff a windfall, make him rich, or punish the defendant. Rather, they are designed simply to make the plaintiff “whole,” to the extent that can be accomplished. They are designed to put the plaintiff roughly in the same position he was in before the wrong was committed.