Damages in Product Liability Cases

If you've been injured by a defective or dangerous product, it's important to understand the spectrum of compensable losses ("damages" in legalese).

Updated by , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

If you've suffered injury or illness because of a product you've used or a medication you've taken, you may have a product liability claim. One of the most important steps in these kinds of cases is determining the scope and seriousness of the harm you've suffered.

In the sections that follow, we'll:

  • explain what "damages" are in the context of a product liability lawsuit
  • highlight the different types of "compensatory" damages, and
  • discuss when a manufacturer might be ordered to pay "punitive" damages.

What are "Damages"?

The term "damages" is legalese for a sum of money paid to the plaintiff in a lawsuit, either to compensate for losses stemming from an injury or illness, or to punish the defendant for wrongdoing. Though there are many different types of damages, they are all ultimately reduced to a dollar amount that the defendant pays to the plaintiff. In a personal injury lawsuit, damages can be ordered by a judge or jury after the defendant is found liable, but compensation received by a claimant via personal injury settlement is also often referred to as "damages."

It's important to estimate your damages up front in a product liability case, because if your injuries are minor and your financial losses are minimal, it might not make sense to spend the time and energy to prosecute your claim. In addition, the smaller your potential damages, the less likely you are to find a lawyer to represent you (unless the product has caused widespread problems, in which case you may be able to join with other potential plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit—a juicy proposition for plaintiffs' lawyers).

On the other hand, if you have a wide variety of damages, it's important to catalog them at the beginning of your lawsuit and keep track of them as things progress, otherwise you risk coming away with less than the full value of your case.

All damages fall into two basic categories: compensatory and punitive.

Compensatory Damages

The purpose of compensatory damages (sometimes called actual damages) is to compensate plaintiffs for the injury or illness caused by the product—in other words, to restore the plaintiff to the condition he or she was in before the injury or illness occurred. Compensatory damages do this by attaching a dollar value to each of the bad things that happened to the plaintiff as a result of his or her use of the product or medication.

Although it may not be possible to truly make the plaintiff whole, as in the case of a permanent injury or diagnosis of a serious illness, compensatory damages provide the plaintiff with a sum of money that is deemed to be "equivalent" to the value of the injury or illness.

There are two categories of compensatory damages: those that compensate for economic losses and those that compensate for non-economic losses.

Economic Losses

Economic losses, sometimes called "special damages" or "monetary losses," refer to money or property that the plaintiff lost or missed out on because of his or her injury or illness. Let's look at a few examples.

Medical expenses. This includes bills from a doctor, hospital, pharmacy, physical therapist, and so on. If your product-related injury or illness will require ongoing medical care, you should include a demand for future medical expenses to cover those costs as well.

Cost of disability. If your injury or illness requires that you change your lifestyle in some way, you may be entitled to any expenses you incur in making those adjustments. If, for example, you need to hire someone to perform household chores or you have to renovate your living space to accommodate a loss of mobility, you will want to include these costs in your demand for compensation.

Loss of wages or profits. If you missed work because of your injury or illness, you will want to include a demand for any lost wages. If you own your own business, you may be entitled to compensation for lost profits. If your condition is likely to keep you from work in the future, you will want to include a demand for loss of future wages or profits.

Property loss or repair. If the defective product in your case caused the destruction of your property, you may be entitled to the cost of repair or replacement.

Non-Economic Losses

Non-economic losses, sometimes called "general damages" or "non-monetary losses," compensate plaintiffs for those aspects of an injury or illness that are more difficult to quantify, such as physical or emotional suffering. Pain and suffering and loss of consortium are the two most common examples of non-economic losses.

Pain and suffering. You may be entitled to compensation for the pain, anguish, or loss of enjoyment of life resulting from your injury or illness. Attaching a dollar figure to pain and suffering may seem a little barbaric, but it is standard practice in personal injury cases. Lawyers often look to the amount awarded for similar injuries or illnesses in past cases to estimate the value of a given claim, but given the intangible nature of pain and suffering, the size of such awards often varies greatly from case to case. Learn more about pain and suffering in an injury case.

Loss of consortium. If your injury or illness has a negative impact on your relationship with your spouse, you may be entitled to compensation for loss of consortium. Sometimes called "loss of society," this includes impact on everything from sexual relations to companionship, emotional support, and loss of affection. In such cases, your spouse may also have a claim for loss of consortium.

Punitive Damages

Unlike compensatory damages, which are meant to make the plaintiff "whole" after an injury or illness, punitive damages are meant to punish a defendant's particularly egregious or outrageous conduct, and to deter similar conduct by others in the future. In the context of a product liability case, it's not unusual for juries to order punitive damages against manufacturers, especially in high-profile cases. Let's look at two recent examples:

  • In 2020, a New Jersey jury ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $750 million in punitive damages (later reduced to $186.5 million) to four plaintiffs who alleged that asbestos-tainted baby powder caused their mesothelioma, and that J&J hid from the public the fact that its product contained asbestos. Learn more about talcum powder-cancer lawsuits.
  • In 2019, a jury ordered Roundup manufacturer Bayer to pay $2 billion in punitive damages to a couple who both developed non-Hodgkin's lymphoma after using Roundup for over 30 years (the plaintiffs' total award was later reduced to $86.7 million). Learn more about Roundup-cancer lawsuits.

If you're thinking about filing a product liability case, having the right lawyer on your side can be the key to realizing the best outcome. Get tips on finding the right personal injury lawyer for you and your case.

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