Understanding Compensatory Damages in an ADA Context

Published December 6, 2023

In ADA cases, prevailing plaintiffs are often awarded what’s known as compensatory damages. These, along with punitive damages, help make up the sum of penalties owed by defendants found guilty of ADA violations. In this piece, we will provide a brief introduction to compensatory damages and the role they serve in ADA cases. 

What are compensatory damages?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines compensatory damages as legal damages that “pay victims for out-of-pocket expenses caused by the discrimination (such as costs associated with a job search or medical expenses).”

The EEOC also explains that compensatory damages may also cover “any emotional harm suffered (such as mental anguish, inconvenience, or loss of enjoyment of life).”

To put it another way, compensatory damages cover the financial costs that a prevailing plaintiff suffers as a result of a claimed offense.

Are there damages other than compensatory?

Compensatory damages differ from punitive damages. Punitive damages serve the sole purpose of reprimanding a defendant. The logic behind these damages is that they will deter the guilty defendant from committing similar future offenses. 

The different kinds of compensatory damages

There are two kinds of compensatory damages. The first is special damages. 

Special damages refer to easily calculable damages. Medical bills, for instance, count as an easily calculable amount because their value is confirmed.

The other kind of compensatory damages is what’s known as general damages. These refer to reparations for items such as pain, suffering, and emotional well-being. These damages are difficult to calculate as the amount required to satisfy them is much more subjective than in special damages.

How are compensatory damages awarded?

The most consistent method for awarding compensatory damages is based on the losses incurred by the defendant. 

Courts will often look at the fair market value of expenses incurred due to the offense. Due to the ambiguity of general damages, methods for calculating them remain somewhat inconsistent.

Additionally, a plaintiff's role in the alleged offense can influence the amount of compensatory damages awarded. According to Coplan and Crane, defendant liability may come into play when calculating compensatory damages.

Limits on compensatory damages

There are limits on the amount of compensatory and punitive damages a person can recover. According to the EEOC, limits vary depending on the size of the employer. The limits are as follows:

  • For employers with 15-100 employees, the limit is $50,000.
  • For employers with 101-200 employees, the limit is $100,000.
  • For employers with 201-500 employees, the limit is $200,000.
  • For employers with more than 500 employees, the limit is $300,000.

The role of compensatory damages in ADA litigation

Within the context of ADA litigation, compensatory damages provide relief from any financial duress that the plaintiff might have suffered as a result of discrimination.

For instance, let's say that an employee recently suffered an accident that left them reliant on a wheelchair, and the company refused to modify the building’s premises to accommodate the wheelchair. As a result, the employee cannot attend work and loses wages. Naturally, the company would be quickly found guilty of violating the ADA and owe the plaintiff compensatory damages. 

The compensatory damages would cover, at the very least, the wages that the plaintiff was denied by being unable to return to work due to a lack of accommodations at the business. 

Of course, the final amount of compensatory damages will depend on various factors particular to the case.

McDonald’s vs. EEOC

An example of compensatory damages being awarded in an ADA-related case can be found in 2016’s EEOC vs. McDonald’s. In this case, the popular fast-food chain was accused of canceling a job interview upon learning that the applicant was deaf. 

According to the suit, the applicant, who had worked at other McDonald’spreviously, required an ASL interpreter for the interview. Upon learning this, the hiring manager canceled the interview. That particular McDonald’s went on to continue interviewing potential employees and went as far as to ignore the plaintiff’s request to reschedule the interview.

The case ruled in favor of the plaintiff. As a result, McDonald’s owed the discriminated-against applicant $56,500 in compensatory damages. 


The purpose of compensatory damages, in the context of accessibility law, is to provide financial relief for a plaintiff who has faced discrimination based on their disability. While there are some monetary limits and case-by-case adjustments, the goal is to provide appropriate relief for individuals of varying ability levels who may have faced injustice.


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