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Last updated March 14, 2009



An award of damages is money. If you have been “damaged” as a result of a defendant’s violation of your rights, you may be able to win money for the injury that you suffered and/or the awfulness of the defendant’s conduct.

There are three types of damages: compensatory, nominal, and punitive. Compensatory damages pay you back for an injury that you suffered as a result of a violation of your rights. The purpose of compensatory damages is to “make you whole again”: to put you back where you were before the violation occurred. In an excessive force lawsuit, for example, compensatory damages might include the cost of medical treatment; wages that you lost because you could not work; and money to make up for your physical pain, permanent injuries, and emotional suffering.32

If you win nominal damages, you will get $1 or a similarly small amount of money. A judge or jury might award you just nominal damages if it concludes that even though the defendants violated your rights, you did not suffer an injury that requires compensation. If you seek compensatory and/or punitive damages in your lawsuit, you should also request nominal damages.

An award of punitive damages (also called exemplary damages) serves to punish a defendant, rather than pay you back for what you lost. A judge or jury may award punitive damages under state law if it concludes that a defendant’s conduct was either motivated by an evil intent or involved reckless or callous indifference to your rights.


We are not lawyers and we cannot give you legal advice. Our opinions and the information provided is based upon our experiences in federal court as well as research. You should always contact an attorney if you have a legal problem.

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