Compensatory Damages

Tort law offers compensation for injuries caused by many different types of illegal conduct, including:


To earn compensation, plaintiffs must establish all the elements of their case to a preponderance of the evidence. Preponderance of the evidence is a lower standard than the familiar “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard applied in criminal cases – the plaintiff only needs to show that it is more likely than not that the defendant caused the injuries.

If neither party is solely responsible for causing the injury, the court may apply the doctrine of comparative negligence. For example, if a driver ran a stop sign and hit a vehicle traveling faster than the speed limit, the jury could conclude that the parties were equally at fault. In most states, the plaintiff would receive compensation for half of the value of his or her injuries.

Compensatory Damages

Compensatory damages are designed to make the plaintiff whole by repairing the damage done by the defendant’s misconduct. To accomplish this objective, courts may consider many different types of injuries, including:

Other Common Forms of Damages

Compensatory damages are best understood in contrast to the other three common types of damages: punitive, statutory, and nominal. When a court awards punitive damages, the defendant must pay the plaintiff more than the injury was worth; courts assess punitive damages as punishment for egregious misconduct. Many of the astronomically high jury verdicts that attract the attention of the media include punitive damages.

Courts assess nominal damages when the defendant violated the law but did not cause any injuries. The court awards a small amount, usually one dollar, to publicly acknowledge that the defendant violated the plaintiff’s rights.

Statutory damages are awarded if the law the defendant violated contains a provision calling for payment of a specific penalty. A good example is the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which limits the tactics debt collectors may use to compel repayment of loans. Most provisions of the act impose a statutory penalty of $1,000. If a debt collection agency violates one of those provisions, it must pay the creditor $1,000 even if the violation did not cause any actual injuries.