Nominal Damages

Broadly speaking, there are three types of damages in Missouri: (a) compensatory damages, (b) punitive damages and (c) nominal damages. Compensatory damages often form the core of a damages award. With compensatory damages, the goal of a court/jury is to award an amount of money damages that makes the plaintiff whole; specifically, the court/jury is to award a sufficient amount of money which will put the plaintiff in as close to a position as possible as he/she/it was in before the wrong complained of occurred. As such, damages in a breach of contract or breach of promissory note case, for example, will generally be equivalent to what the party would have received monetarily had the contract been performed.
Punitive damages are different and focus more on the nature of the wrongdoer’s conduct. A court/jury can award punitive damages if the wrongdoer’s conduct reflects willful, wanton or malicious motive or gross recklessness. Punitive damages can be controversial because they sometimes can have no relationship with the actual harm suffered (i.e., the compensatory damages).
What happens when a plaintiff cannot proven damages? In Missouri, as in many jurisdictions, nominal damages can generally be awarded. Nominal damages are damages awarded only as a recognition of some breach of a duty owed by defendant to plaintiff and not as a measure of compensation for loss or detriment suffered. Simpkins v. Ryder Freight Systems, Inc., 855 S.W.2d 416, 422 (Mo. Ct. App. 1993). The general theory of nominal damages is that they should be allowed where a legal right has been invaded but no actual damages were suffered or proven. Id. at 422. The principle developed from the common law action for trespass for violence to person or property. Id. In such cases, the law simply presumes that damages are allowed. — but only a minimal amount without affirmative proofId.

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