Where a party suffers an injury caused by another and asserts a claim in a court of law and proves liability and resulting damages, the injured party is entitled to recover those damages. There are three main types of damages that a plaintiff may be entitled to recover: compensatory damages, nominal damages, and punitive damages.
Compensatory damages are awarded with the intent to make the plaintiff whole; meaning, the goal is to place the plaintiff in the position he was in before the wrongful injury occurred through the payment of money. Compensatory damages include: the injuries to the value of real property, financial losses due to breach of contract, and medical expenses or loss of income resulting form physical injury. In tort cases, actual damages are calculated to reflect the amount needed to restore the injured party to their original position before the injury whereas in property cases, damages are calculated according to the diminution in the market value of the property following the injury. In contract cases, the plaintiff may recover for breach of the contract, the out of pocket costs incurred as a result of the contract and the costs the contract would have realized had it been performed. Generally, the plaintiff has the burden of proof in all cases to recover compensatory damages. There is an exception for per se defamation claims; in these cases, the plaintiff need not bear the burden of proof, the damages are presumed.
Nominal damages are used to address the situations where the plaintiff suffers no injury but has sustained some loss. For example, a court may award nominal damages where the court finds a party’s rights have been invaded or a duty owed to the party has been breached. Nominal damages, as the name indicates, can be very nominal, a court may award as little as a dollar in nominal damages. The ultimate purpose of nominal damages is to vindicate a plaintiff’s legal right. The courts in South Carolina will presume nominal damages where a plaintiff can show a violation or some infringement of a legal right.
Punitive damages are reserved for the cases where there has been reckless, willful, wanton, or malicious conduct on the part of the defendant or others or where there has been the reckless or willful invasion of the plaintiff’s private rights. Punitive damages are awarded with the intent to punish the defendant for his wrongful conduct. Punitive damages carry the greatest burden of proof in civil cases; punitive damage awards require some kind of extreme offensive conduct on the part of the defendant so much so that the court wants to make an example out of the defendant in order to deter others from engaging in the same conduct.
As you can see, compensatory, nominal and punitive damages all carry different burdens of proof with punitive damages carrying the greatest burden of proof. At the outset, it is important you understand what the damages are so that you can better understand your attorney’s method of seeking those damage awards on your behalf or defending against the award of damages.