The composer and singer, Taylor Swift, recently won a sexual assault lawsuit against a former radio host. He initially sued her stating that she had caused his dismissal. She countersued because she wanted the trial to serve as an “example to other women”. Swift only sought a single dollar in damages, which the jury awarded her.
The dollar awarded to Swift brings up some interesting points about how damages are calculated under the law. There are two parts to every case. The first part is liability, meaning that one has to first prove their case before they are entitled to damages. Many people spend most of their energy on the facts of their case, as they are so personally involved in it. Yet, once they are able to prove their case, the next step, and often the most important step, is for them to prove how they were damaged. I often tell clients, once they receive even one dollar in a negotiated settlement, mediation, arbitration, or judge or jury award, they have prevailed under the law in some form. The one dollar amount is also significant because that one dollar can trigger a statute which awards the prevailing party fees and costs in certain areas of the law, such as some areas of civil rights law. These awards of attorney’s fees and costs can often be quite large.
But, most people who are involved in the legal process would not ask for or be pleased if they only received one dollar in damages. The question of how damages are calculated in the legal arena can sometimes be mysterious. There are different kinds of damages which can apply to different areas of law, and the terms “statutory”, “compensatory”, “liquidated” and “punitive” refer to the types of damages which may be available depending on the type of lawsuit one brings. Damages can sometimes be enhanced by added-on interest or a multiplying factor due to the nature or type of law being pursued, or some unique benefit created to a class of people or the general public, or producing some drastic change in the law, or as permitted via statute or case law. Many clients feel that they are entitled to receive damages due to their “pain and suffering” their “humiliation” their “emotional distress”, their “mental anguish”, or their “loss of enjoyment of life”, but these types of damages are not available in all areas of the law.
Damages generally require some underlying basis in fact. In certain areas of the law, personal injury for example, a calculation of damages generally includes lost wages, unreimbursed medical bills, expenses relating to seeking of medical care, or treatment, and said calculation is not difficult. In other areas of the law damages are difficult to calculate, and some damage requests are outside the perimeter of what the law or the decision makers are able or willing to do, such as restore someone to their prior occupation.
Many people have unrealistic expectations of the damages they are entitled to, either because they feel that someone has to “pay” for what has happened to them, or because they have heard about large awards received by others, and do not understand that each lawsuit stands alone, and the results can vary based on their particular forum, jurisdiction, the decision-maker, their location, the statutes involved, and the circumstances of their case. Even when one reads about a large award they do not realize that the award is sometimes reduced or overturned at the appeal stage of the legal process, or that the award may never be able to be collected, like the Silverman family who has never been able to collect on their judgment against OJ Simpson. Other times, such as in employment cases, the damages are greatly reduced as they are offset by the earnings or other benefits the terminated person has received, which must be offset against their lost wages.
It is highly likely that Swift would have received a large financial award had she sought it, as many celebrities do. Quite often it is their very celebrity which leads to their victory or a high award, as well as their ability to afford excellent and expensive attorneys. I give Swift credit because she stood up for her principles. On the other hand, few average people who also would like to prevail on their principles can afford to fund an expensive lawsuit. Bear in mind that someone has to pay for a lawsuit. That someone can be the parties to the lawsuit, their lawyers, or some third party who agrees to fund a lawsuit due to personal or public interest.