damages, money award that the judgment of a court requires the defendant in a suit to pay to the plaintiff as compensation for the loss or injury inflicted. Damages are the form of legal redress most commonly sought. With a few exceptions, English courts of law traditionally afforded only this remedy, while the grant of damages in courts of equity was solely incidental to other relief, such as injunction. The purpose of damages is to compensate the injured party for the loss that he has suffered and will probably suffer from the defendant's illegal conduct. Thus, in a suit for physical injuries the plaintiff may seek recovery for the pain he endured and his accrued medical expenses and for probable loss of earnings due to disability during the period of his incapacity. In suing for breach of contract the plaintiff need not prove the extent of his loss if the contract specified the "liquidated" damages, i.e., the probable loss from breach. Where there is a question as to the amount of damages, the jury usually makes the assessment. While the ordinary object of damages is simply to compensate the injured party to the extent of the injury, where there was fraud or deliberate wrongdoing, exemplary or punitive damages may be allowed. Many statutes thus provide for double or treble damages. In some instances where the extent of the loss cannot be determined or the injury is slight, nominal damages (e.g., a dollar) may be granted. Usually the losing party is required to reimburse the winning party for having put him to legal expense. In England reasonable counsel fees are recoverable, while in the United States only those expenses fixed by statute are recoverable. In some U.S. states, however, even the winning party may be required to pay compensation if by delay or other improper conduct he added to his opponent's legal costs. When damages and legal costs are awarded they become a lien on the debtor's property, which the creditor may seize and sell if the debtor does not meet his obligation. In some states, if the debtor attempts to put his property out of reach, an injunction ordering him to pay may be issued. During the 1990s conservatives pursuing "tort reform" prevailed on many state legislatures to enact laws limiting damages, but state courts have consistently voided these laws as violations of state constitutional guarantees of open court systems.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.