Pecuniary damages are economic, out-of-pocket losses suffered by a person as a result of another person’s illegal conduct. They are awarded by a judge or a jury in a civil court case. This type of an award is a category of special damages and is distinct from other types of monetary awards that may be available in the same court case, such as general damages.
Damages in civil cases are available in many jurisdictions that have legal systems based on English common law, but plaintiff-oriented litigation with substantial jury awards are a particular feature of the U.S. legal system. The historical notion of damages sought primarily to make the injured party whole, or in other words, to return him to the state he was in prior to the injury. Pecuniary damages are in line with this traditional use of a compensatory award and are not punitive or designed to enrich a party for injuries that can not be objectively measured.
The two umbrella categories of damages awarded in a U.S. civil case are general damages and special damages. Pecuniary damages are a type of special damages. An award under this category can only compensate a party for financial losses that can be mathematically computed with some certainty. General damages can compensate a party for many different categories of injuries, including subjective mental injuries such as pain and suffering.
Losses that are eligible for compensation under a pecuniary damages award are harm to or destruction of property, lost current and future earnings, lost ability to collect an inheritance, funeral expenses, and any other out-of-pocket expenses that were necessitated by the underlying action. For example, if a person rear-ends another car, the pecuniary award would be the amount it would take to fix the car, or to put the injured party back in the state he was in prior to the accident. The pecuniary damages award for a wrongful death case might include lost earnings from the deceased and funeral expenses.
An award of pecuniary damages doesn’t preclude a non-pecuniary award in the same case. In fact, the non-pecuniary award potential is typically the reason attorneys in the U.S. will take cases on a contingency basis. If it seems as if a cause of action will only provide the injured party with pecuniary damages, it will be practically impossible to find an attorney to take the case because there wouldn’t be the potential for a big jury award.