Situations Where Courts Grant Nominal Damages

by Staff

Nominal damage is a small amount of money that a court awards a plaintiff for winning their civil case. This is awarded when it has been proven that the plaintiff’s rights were violated but they didn’t suffer damages that required financial compensation. In most cases, the amount awarded to the plaintiff is just $1.

Since most personal injury lawyers charge a contingent fee, it means they’ll just be getting a few cents for all their hard work. So, it’s not surprising that certain fee arrangements in nominal damage cases do not excite lawyers as much as compensatory damage cases. But before we talk about fee arrangements, let’s discuss situations where a court might award nominal damages.

  • A breach of contract case: The plaintiff proved in court that the defendant breached the agreement terms but was unable to show how this breach harmed them financially or physically. 
  • A defamation case: In this situation, the defendant defamed the plaintiff by making a statement that others believed, which damaged the plaintiff’s reputation. Although the rights of the plaintiff were proven to have been violated, they could not prove how the defamation made them lose business opportunities and wages or caused non-financial damages.
  • An assault case: The plaintiff proved that the defendant threatened them; however, the defendant didn’t harm the plaintiff, and they didn’t suffer any physical or psychological injuries.
  • A medical malpractice case: The medical practitioner was proven to have deviated from the standard procedure. Yet, this deviation did not lead to any injuries. The plaintiff might prove that the new procedure surprised them and made them anxious, but since there was no injury, only nominal damage will be awarded.

All of the above are just examples of situations where a court might grant nominal damages. The possibilities of such situations are endless. What’s clear is that, at the end of the day, the plaintiff is unable to prove that they suffered any physical injury, financial harm, or psychological trauma. You can learn how to recover from trauma. Sometimes, the court might choose to dismiss the plaintiff’s claim rather than award nominal damages.

Given that these cases do not have significant compensation, why would anyone even go through all the trouble? Below are a few reasons:

  • To get vindication that their position was right while the defendant was wrong.
  • To establish that their rights were indeed violated even though they didn’t suffer financially. 
  • To get other relief forms, such as punitive damages or injunctive relief.
  • To establish a legal example that can be used in other similar future cases.

Back to fee arrangements for damage cases, to get a lawyer to represent you, there are other agreements you can consider apart from giving your lawyer a few cents out of the $1 if you are so determined to get the court judgment. Let’s explore these options:

  • Flat Fee: This is perfect because you can predict the amount of work the case requires.
  • Billable hours: Usually several hundred dollars per hour. This option might be quite expensive, but if you don’t mind the cost, you can go ahead with it.
  • Pro bono: This free option happens when your case is for a cause and the lawyer is interested in and invested in supporting the cause. You can check out this article to learn more about what pro bono is.

In some very rare cases, the court might direct the defendant to also pay your lawyer’s fees in addition to the $1. This can be a huge relief, especially for someone in a tight financial situation. However, certain states do not allow this practice. They believe that asking the offender to pay the legal fees of an opponent’s lawyer is unconstitutional and should not be allowed.

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The New Jersey Digest is a new jersey magazine that has chronicled daily life in the Garden State for over 10 years.

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