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What Are Nominal Damages?

    Significance of Nominal Damages

    • Nominal damages typically are for a very small amount, e.g., $1. Consequently, nominal damages are in reality nothing more than a finding that the defendant committed a tortious act against the plaintiff. The imposition of nominal damages in some cases is nothing more than a moral victory for the plaintiff in knowing that the court found wrongdoing. However, absent an award of legal fees, punitive damages, etc., financially, the plaintiff may find that finding very expensive.

    Other Types of Damages

    • There are three main types of damages awarded by civil courts: nominal, compensatory and punitive. Nominal have been described. Compensatory damages are effectively a reimbursement so the plaintiff is held harmless for the wrongdoing that the defendant did to her. For example, if someone sued because another negligently ruined his suit, then the compensatory damages might include the fair market value of the suit plus any ancillary costs involved in replacing the suit.

      Punitive damages, as the name would suggest, are used to punish egregious behavior by the plaintiff. Punitive damages are less common than compensatory damages and generally require a willful act by the defendant against the plaintiff.

    Determining Damages

    • Typically, damages are designed to try to return the harmed party to a position as close as possible to his position if the defendant's wrongful actions against the plaintiff never took place. (This does not include instances where punitive damages are imposed,) This level of harm is what creates a distinction between nominal damages and compensatory damages. Nominal damages are effectively the same as compensatory damages with a find of no economic harm resulting from the tortious act.

    Caps on Damages

    • Some states have imposed limits on the level of damages that can be awarded in particular types of cases. Many of these limitations are presented as tort reform. For example, some states have limited the amount that can be received in certain cases and even limiting when cases can be pursued at all. Most typically, tort reform efforts seek to reduce or cap the amount that one can receive for pain and suffering as part of compensatory damages at least in part because pain and suffering is difficult to quantify.


    • Nominal damage examples are not as common as traditional compensatory damages cases. However, as an illustration, a nominal damage award might be made where the defendant negligently trespassed on the plaintiff's land without harming the land in any way. Technically, a tort was committed but the plaintiff is no worse off economically because of the trespass. Therefore nominal damages would be reasonable.

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