A Lesson Learned from Taylor Swift on the Meaning of Damages

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.

Yes, Even $1.00 Award Has Implications       

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 that even if they receive one dollar in a negotiated settlement, mediation, arbitration, or judge or jury award, that they have prevailed under the law. The one dollar amount is significant because that one dollar can trigger a statute which awards the prevailing party fees and costs in certain areas of the law, including areas of civil rights law.  These awards of attorney’s fees and costs can often be quite large.

Would you be pleased if you only received $1.00 in damages?  No doubt, most people wouldn’t.  The question of how damages are calculated can sometimes be mysterious and it’s good to understand this upfront. The concept of damages is not as simple as one would think. There are different kinds of damages that 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, because the lawsuit conferred a benefit to a class of people or the general public, because the lawsuit produced some drastic change in the law, or as otherwise permitted via statute or case law. Many clients feel that they are entitled to receive damages due to their “pain and suffering,” “humiliation,” “emotional distress,” “mental anguish,” or “loss of enjoyment of life,” but these types of damages are not available in all areas of the law.

Is Your Expectation of Damages Supported by the Facts?

Damages generally require an underlying basis in fact. In certain areas of the law, such as personal injury, damages are easy to calculate as they are based on discrete items such as lost wages, and expenses relating to medical care and treatment. In other areas of the law, damages are difficult to calculate, and some damage requests are outside the parameter of what the law or the decision makers are able or willing to do, such as restoring someone to their prior occupation.

What We Think We Deserve May Not Be What the Law Thinks We Deserve

Many people have unrealistic expectations of the damages to which they are entitled, 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 the circumstances that distinguish their lawsuit such as forum, jurisdiction, decision-maker, location, the statutes involved, and the factual details of their case. They also do not understand that these large awards are 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.

Our Kudos to Taylor Swift

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 that 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 people can afford to fund an expensive lawsuit in order to arrest their own principles. 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.

I am Faye Riva Cohen, Esquire and am a Philadelphia attorney who has been practicing law since 1974.  I am the president and managing attorney of both the Law Office of Faye Riva Cohen, P.C. and Legal Research, Inc.  You can find more about my law office here  and Legal Research, Inc. here.  After my many years of experience, I would like to share my thoughts with you!  You can always contact me via email at frc@fayerivacohen.com, telephone at 215-563-7776, facsimile at 215-563-9996, or in person at 2047 Locust Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103.  Please note that nothing on this blog should be construed as legal advice; every case is unique and the appropriate action for it must be individually considered.  A lawyer/client relationship is not established unless you execute a fee agreement with one of my offices.