In any personal injury case, you're always looking for just and due compensation for your injuries and losses. Along with compensatory damages, chances are your attorney will recommend that you also seek punitive damages, especially in cases where the defendant has displayed exceptionally negligent or malicious conduct. The following offers a comprehensive explanation of punitive damages, how they work and what to expect.
What are Punitive Damages?
Think of punitive damages as a financial incentive levied on the defendant to avoid the negligent or malicious actions that caused your claim in the first place. Punitive damages serve as a brake on behaviors and practices that often result in a courtroom visit. For example, the court may award the plaintiff punitive damages on top of compensatory damages.
Receiving punitive damages often means providing that the defendant went beyond mere negligence. The plaintiff must prove that the defendant maliciously or purposely created the conditions for the plaintiff's claims. Such conditions must have harmed the plaintiff directly in some way or form. The level of proof required usually depends on the case itself and the circumstances surrounding it.
How Punitive Damages Differ from Compensatory Damages
While punitive damages are geared towards financially penalizing defendants for their negligent actions, compensatory damages are intended as compensation for your losses. Hospital expenses and medical bills would be considered compensatory, while an award for "pain and suffering" would be considered punitive.
While there is a reasonable expectation that you'll receive compensatory damages in a successful personal injury case, there's no guarantee that you'll receive punitive damages from the negligent party. In fact, receiving punitive damages requires receiving compensatory damages first.
Keep in mind that punitive damages are not available for cases involving breach of contract. However, you should consult with your personal injury attorney to see if special circumstances apply for your case.
How Much to Expect?
The amount you'll receive for punitive damages will vary depending on your state's rules and guidelines. However, you're entitled to claim as much as you feel necessary for punitive damages. Most states don't place a dollar cap on punitive damages, but the general practice is to limit the awarded amount to a ratio that's considered reasonably proportionate to the plaintiff's award in compensatory damages. For example, the court could award you punitive damages that are 3 times the amount you'd receive in compensatory damages.
In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has moved to unofficially restrict the amount of punitive damages that plaintiffs can ask for. One major case in 2003 saw the Supreme Court overturn punitive damages worth over $145 million, specifying that punitive damages should be proportionate to the plaintiff's actual losses.
Remember that each state has its own way of handling punitive damages. Unlike restitutionary awards such as compensatory damages, most or even all of the punitive damages awarded typically go to the state government's treasury or a special fund created for handling tort awards. A few states have split-recovery statutes where the majority of the money goes to the state, leaving a small portion of punitive damages available to the plaintiff.
Factors Used for Calculating Punitive Damages
There are a variety of other factors the court holds into consideration when calculating punitive damages. These often include:
- Comparisons of punitive damage awards in similar cases
- Comparisons of the punitive damage amount to the amount of harm suffered by the plaintiff
- Whether the defendant's actions and/or conduct was malicious enough to warrant steep punitive damages
- Whether the case involves non-economic harm
In cases where there are severe psychological or emotional injuries, the court may award large punitive damages in spite of the difficulties involved in proving such injuries actually occurred.