What Are Nominal Damages and What Is Their Purpose?
In every personal injury or other tort case, the plaintiff must prove damages as an essential element of her claim. In other words, the plaintiff must demonstrate that she suffered some harm. Damages may consist of easily quantifiable costs such as the expense of medical bills or lost wages, or less tangible but equally significant items like pain and suffering.
Typically, if the plaintiff cannot prove any damages, her case will be thrown out. In some cases, however, a victim of wrongdoing without clear evidence of damages may proceed with her case and pursue “nominal damages.” Nominal damages are an award in favor of the plaintiff of a token amount of money (possibly even one dollar) signifying that the plaintiff successfully proved her claim but did not suffer substantial damages.
Why Pursue Nominal Damages?
Awards of nominal damages sometimes result from a plaintiff failing to demonstrate significant harm at trial, despite meeting all of the legal burdens involved in the claim. Such a verdict may be considered a loss, despite technically being in the plaintiff’s favor. In other cases, however, the plaintiff knowingly pursues nominal damages. Why go through all the trouble and expense of a lawsuit only to recover one dollar? There are several possible reasons.
Adding Attorneys’ Fees or Punitive Damages to a Nominal Damages Award
The victim of some kind of wrongdoing may pursue nominal damages as the basis for a further award of either attorneys’ fees, punitive damages, or both. This approach is often taken when the defendant’s actions seem particularly egregious or offensive but did not cause quantifiable economic loss to the victim. In such a case, the plaintiff is hoping for a verdict in her favor (regardless of how much damages are awarded) that will allow the judge or jury to tack on an additional award, in light of the defendant’s bad behavior.
Proving a Point
Occasionally, a plaintiff desires a favorable verdict, regardless of the monetary award, in order to vindicate her claim. The verdict may then be used as evidence in another legal proceeding, such as a domestic relations dispute. In rare instances, simply winning is more important than money to the plaintiff who pursues nominal damages – just for the satisfaction of being right.
Civil Rights Issues
Plaintiffs in civil rights cases often pursue a favorable judgment at trial, despite the availability of only nominal damages. This is because the effect of a favorable verdict on future cases, and public policy in general, is more valuable than any monetary award.
Taking a Look at a Recent Example of Nominal Damages
All three of the above justifications for pursuing nominal damages were highlighted in a 2017 federal court case in Minnesota. In Jenkins v. The University of Minnesota, et al., the plaintiff, a researcher at the University, accused her supervisor of repeated sexual harassment. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury found that the defendant had created a hostile work environment but awarded the plaintiff only one dollar in damages.
Following the award of nominal damages, the court ordered the defendant to pay over $300,000 in attorneys’ fees. The attorneys’ fees order was upheld on appeal due to the important public policy implications of the plaintiff’s case.