A Lesson In Damages: Know How You’ve Been Harmed

Lawsuits begin and end with damages. One person’s interest has been harmed by another’s act. In the legal thriller Damages, the award-winning TV series starring Glenn Close, each season always focused first on how the newest clients of Hewes & Associates were damaged. The first season portrayed an Enron-like insider trading case, where the founder had dumped his stock on unsuspecting employees as the company fell apart. The ruthless Patty Hewes returned $2 billion to the former employees in exchange for allowing the founder to avoid prison.

In a lawsuit, damages result from an injury to a specific interest that a court can recognize. Injury to a “legally cognizable interest” is essential to standing, the constitutional right to demand justice in the courts. Cases are often thrown out of court because the plaintiff either cannot show an injury or is not adequately connected to the interest that was injured. For example, I cannot sue the burglars of my neighbor’s house, or the rude waitress who served my dinner cold. Right now, several residents of Plainfield, New Jersey are trying to stop the takeover of a community hospital because it was created to serve the surrounding neighborhood, and they believe the new owners will be less committed to the area. But the residents have no real interest in the hospital other than as future patients and local homeowners, and they’ve not been able to stop the takeover.

When an injury to a legal interest exists, it’s important to know what the injury costs in real dollars. I won a judgment in the first lawsuit I filed, but I effectively lost the case by not calculating the actual damages. A roofing contractor doing work on the house next door threw rusty nails and other debris onto my gravel driveway. I endured several flat tires over a period of two weeks before finding and removing the debris. I located the company, collected affidavits from my neighbors, and took the case to court. The judge ruled in my favor and then asked how many miles had been on my tires when they were replaced. I had assumed the company would be forced to pay for my new tires, but no. They hadn’t damaged new tires, and they were only required to pay for what they’d damaged, my old tires.

I was a college student, ignorant of all things automobile except for how to drive, and I had no idea of the typical mileage rating for a tire. Embarrassed at my lack of knowledge, I blurted out “100,000 miles”. The judge kindly found damages of $20 — $5 per tire — and the contractor handed me a bill from his wallet.

It was a powerful lesson. Know how you’ve been harmed before you sue. Or, if you’re on the other side, prepare to show the court how little the plaintiff has been harmed. If you’re as lucky as that roofing company, you can pay the judgment in open court. It all comes down to damages.

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