“Damages” is simply a term that lawyers and judges use instead of what most people would call “compensation”. If a personal injury claim proceeds to trial, a judge will award damages (or compensation) in the form of a monetary amount. That amount is arrived at by totalling up all heads of damage relevant to the loss and damage sustained by the injured person.
“General damages” and “Special damages” are overarching terms that are used to categorise the loss and damage an injured person has suffered. These terms were used far more frequently in the past than they are used now and the distinction has become a bit clouded in recent times, perhaps due to the fact that it is no longer necessary to categorise a head of damage under one heading or the other.
Many lawyers refer to “general damages” when they are considering damages that should be payable for pain and suffering and loss of the amenities of life. This approach, however, is not entirely accurate.
Special damages are awarded in respect of actual monetary loss suffered and expenditure actually incurred. They are assessed as at the date of settlement or judgment and they are capable of precise mathematical calculation or at least of being estimated with a close approximation to accuracy. The types of things that normally form an award for special damages include medical and surgical fees paid or payable, hospital expenses and lost income and care and assistance provided.
General damages, however, on the other hand are not able to be calculated with any certainty and a judge ordinarily has a wide discretion in assessing the amounts payable for general damages. The heads of damage that would ordinarily be considered to fall within “general damages” would include any award for pain and suffering and loss of the amenities of life and any award for loss of earning capacity (into the future).
For the purposes of clarity, these days it is easier to simply refer to each head of damage in its own right (like “pain and suffering” or “past economic loss”), rather than trying to categorise them as either “general damages” or “special damages”.