4 Things to Know about Claiming Moral Damages in Small Claims Court

In an earlier post, we talked about the principles of causation, damage valuation and mitigation of damages as they apply to every small claim lawsuit, and considered an odd situation of a woman with a cold. I’d like now to turn to a more common form of damages that plaintiffs often want to claim: emotional pain and suffering.

The idea that the plaintiff can claim “moral damages” for things such as emotional pain and suffering or mental anguish in almost any case where he or she was wronged is a fairly common misconception. Pain and suffering are a form of damages that can be claimed, to be sure. However, to do so, we must apply the principles of civil lawsuits we discussed earlier.

  1. First, we have to objectively show that emotional suffering has actually taken place. Saying “I was very upset,” is, understandably, not good evidence.
  2. Second, it must be made clear that emotional suffering was the result of the defendant’s wrongful actions, and not anything else. For these two things to be established, it is almost always necessary to have a psychiatrist’s report documenting the suffering and its cause.
  3. Third, the suffering must be reasonably evaluated to arrive at a dollar amount. As a result of media coverage of cases with extreme amounts of damages awarded, many think that they can claim thousands of dollars in “moral damages” for relatively small inconveniences. In practice, this is usually not the case. In practice, the amount that a plaintiff can reasonably claim in moral damages is based on common sense and similar situations found in case law, which may or may not be a significant sum of money. The actual amount awarded by a judge, if any, is at the judge’s discretion, and would be informed by common sense and case law both sides present.
  4. Finally, whether moral damages are awarded to the plaintiff is dependent also on the particular circumstances of the case. In cases that involve, for example, defamation, the plaintiff is more likely to be awarded damages for mental anguish, since a blow to one’s reputation can reasonably be accepted to be mentally strenuous. In cases involving business to business transactions, on the other hand, moral damages are very rare – it is reasoned that both sides should expect to be involved in conflicts related to their businesses and should be sufficiently mentally resilient to deal with the situation.

All that said, even if, in your case, you can’t really claim moral damages, your situation may warrant a claim for some general or punitive damages. General damages are those damages that can’t be objectively evaluated, but are estimated subjectively, and can involve things like inconvenience. An example is the case of a lady who wasn’t able to use her kitchen for several months because the contractor didn’t finish renovations in a timely manner. Punitive damages can be awarded as a penalty to the defendant, in cases where the defendant’s conduct was especially fraudulent, malicious or similarly reprehensible. Additionally, if the plaintiff wins a case, he or she will usually receive some money in costs, to serve as partial compensation for the inconvenience of filing a lawsuit, court fees and legal expenses.

The lesson then, is a fairly simple one – when filing a small claim, be reasonable!

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