The civil justice system in North Carolina is intended to hold people responsible for harm that they have caused. Personal responsibility is basic to American justice. It is the moral responsibility of someone who has carelessly injured someone else to compensate that person for that harm. If a child breaks a window with a baseball, we teach the child to pay for the window. It is no different when an adult hits your car. It is no different when it’s your body that gets hurt in that wreck. The person who carelessly hurt your body and that person’s insurance company have a duty to compensate you for your injuries.
In a motor vehicle accident case for personal injury in North Carolina, the judge gives the jury an instruction that goes something like this: “damages for personal injury also include fair compensation for the actual past, present, and future physical pain and mental suffering experienced by the plaintiff as a proximate cause of the negligence of the defendant. There is no fixed formula for placing a value on physical pain and mental suffering. You will determine what is fair compensation by applying logic and common sense to the evidence.”
The judge uses the term “fair compensation” twice. So, what is compensation? As it is used here, it means to produce a state of balance or fairness. Fair compensation is intended to put the injured person in the same position he or she was before the wreck.
With damage to a motor vehicle, fair compensation is easy to calculate. If the vehicle is repairable, you get repair estimates. If the vehicle has been totaled, you can look in the Kelly Blue Book, Edmunds online or the NADA guide to find out what a similar vehicle would be worth. But with pain and suffering, there are no guides. You cannot buy or sell pain, and even if you could, nobody would want to buy it. So, how do you put a value on it?
I think that the easiest way to figure out fair compensation for pain and suffering is to think of it as a burden that one person places on another. The person who causes the wreck puts the burden of the pain and suffering on the shoulders of the person who was injured through no fault of their own. The fair way to compensate someone for carrying such a burden is to figure out how heavy the burden is and how long they have to carry it. Just like compensating someone for doing a job.
For example, if the job is to carry a bag on your back with a single brick in it for a couple of weeks, the compensation would be small. If the person was able to sleep 5 hours a night with the brick on his back, he should be compensated for 19 hours a day. Maybe you could get someone to do that job for $5.00 an hour. So, that would be $5.00 x 19 hours x 14 days which comes to $1,330.00. That might be a fair amount for having moderate neck pain for a couple of weeks that goes away and will never come back.
On the other hand, if the job is to carry a twenty-five-pound bag of bricks on your back for life, it would take a lot of money to get someone to take that job. But even if someone could be found to take the job for a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, and the person could sleep 5 hours a night and the person’s life expectancy was 30 years, that comes to $1,508,362.50. If the job paid $15.00 an hour, that would be $3,120,750.00.
Another thing to consider is whether the pain is constant. If so, it is a full time job. There are no breaks for lunch hour, there is no quitting time, there are no vacations, and there is no retirement. If the pain is intermittent, you can think of it as a part-time job.
In summary, there is no formula for compensation for pain and suffering. However, thinking of pain and suffering as a job of carrying a weight on your back can help you figure out what is a fair amount to demand from an insurance company if you have been injured in a wreck that was not your fault.