Many times a client will ask for a lawyer’s opinion regarding what a personal injury claim is worth. Answering this seemingly simple question can be a complex legal analysis of available parties, potential injury claims, legal liability and the unique way in which each plaintiff suffers harm. At its essence, the value of a personal injury claim is what a jury in the county where the case is filed is likely to award at the conclusion of a trial, factoring in the likelihood that the plaintiff will prevail. The first step in this analysis is understanding what damages a jury may permissibly assess.
With very limited exceptions primarily dealing with Wrongful Death claims, Massachusetts’ law allows juries to award only Compensatory Damages” to personal injury victims. Compensatory damages provide a plaintiff with the monetary amount necessary to replace what was lost, and nothing more. The purpose of Compensatory Damages is to place the plaintiff in the same position as if no wrong had been done to him/her by the defendant. Other states allow juries to award “Punitive Damages” in personal injury claims. The purpose of punitive damages is to punish a defendant for his or her conduct as a deterrent to the future commission of such act. In Massachusetts, Punitive Damages in personal injury cases are recoverable only for Wrongful Death resulting from gross negligence and/or willful, wanton or reckless acts. This means that in the vast majority of personal injury cases in Massachusetts, the focus for determining damages needs to be on what the plaintiff lost, not on the conduct of the defendant. It is the role of the attorney to determine how each individual plaintiff has been specifically harmed by the defendant’s conduct and what monetary amount would properly compensate those unique circumstances.