While most personal injury lawsuits focus on recovering compensatory damages designed to reimburse victims of negligence for their injuries and losses, some plaintiffs might also recover punitive damages. Punitive damages punish defendants in cases in which their conduct was outrageous.
What Punitive Damages Are Meant to Do
Punitive damages are monetary amounts that may be awarded in addition to compensatory damages. They’re not recoverable alone.
Punitive damages are for two primary purposes:
- Punishing a defendant who has acted in a particularly egregious manner
- Setting an example for others to deter similar conduct in the future
Punishing a defendant with punitive damages causes them to suffer a painful financial loss because of their conduct. When the court orders a defendant to pay a substantial sum, they’re less likely to repeat the same type of behavior in the future.
Punitive damages are also referred to as exemplary damages, because they provide an example to deter other people (as well as the defendant) from acting in similar ways.
Who Gets Punitive Damages When They’re Ordered?
While punitive damages are designed to punish defendants and set an example for others (instead of purely compensating plaintiffs), plaintiffs who are awarded punitive damages still receive the proceeds. As a result, punitive damages awards place victims in a financially superior position than what they enjoyed before their accidents and injuries.
It’s important to note that punitive damages awards are rare. According to a study published in the Florida Coastal Law Review, punitive damages are only awarded in around 6% of civil cases. This means they aren’t available in the vast majority of personal injury claims.
When Are Punitive Damages Available?
Punitive damages are only available when a defendant’s conduct was fraudulent, intentional, or willful and wanton. Defendants who engage in such conduct are considered to have recklessly disregarded the substantial and high degree of risk that someone else might suffer severe injuries because of their behavior.
For example, if someone drives while intoxicated with alcohol or drugs and collides into another vehicle while driving the wrong way on an interstate, punitive damages might be available.
Note that because most personal injury cases are based on negligent causes of action, these cases generally won’t involve punitive damages. For example, if someone negligently causes an accident because of distraction, punitive damages will likely be unavailable.
Requirements for Punitive Damages
Punitive damages cannot be awarded alone, but rather must be awarded together with compensatory damages. Compensatory damages must be awarded first.
Punitive damages are normally awarded only when the plaintiff suffered direct injuries because of the actions of the defendant. Suffering indirect harm from a defendant’s actions will normally not be enough.
Amount of Punitive Damages
In BMW of North America v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559 (1996), The Supreme Court held that grossly excessive punitive damages awards violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
In general, that means punitive damages awards that exceed the compensatory damages by 10 times or more will likely be considered unconstitutional. Many states have also placed caps on punitive damages awards in tort claims.
Basically, punitive damages must be awarded in an amount that’s proportional to the damages incurred by the plaintiff.
Proving Punitive Damages
Before you can secure compensatory damages, you’ll first have to present evidence showing that the defendant was negligent. Elements of negligence include the following:
- The defendant owed a duty of care to you.
- The defendant breached the duty of care.
- The defendant’s breach caused your accident and injuries.
- You suffered measurable damages as a result.
Proving negligence by itself might result in compensatory damages, but remember, it won’t be enough to secure punitive ones.
This means you’ll need to present evidence that the defendant either acted intentionally or with such a high degree of recklessness or gross negligence that punitive damages should be awarded.
For example, in a medical malpractice case, showing that a doctor misdiagnosed your medical condition and caused you harm will likely not be enough to secure punitive damages. However, if the doctor operated on the wrong part of your body, that degree of negligence might be high enough to justify a punitive damages award.
Other Examples of Proving Punitive Damages
Presenting evidence of the defendant engaging in dangerous conduct might also be enough to justify an award of punitive damages. In tort claims, this might be drunk driving accidents or collisions with innocent bystanders while street racing.
Showing evidence that the defendant acted with a complete disregard for the law can also justify an award of punitive damages. The evidence required will vary on a case-by-case basis and depend on the seriousness of the defendant’s conduct.
Requesting Punitive Damages
In some states, plaintiffs can request punitive damages in their initial pleadings. In others, it’s a little more difficult. For example, Missouri passed a law requiring plaintiffs to ask for permission from the court to seek punitive damages. A trier (finder) of fact looks at the evidence that will be admitted at trial to determine if a punitive damages award is appropriate. The court will only grant the plaintiff permission to seek punitive damages when it receives the trier’s approval.
Under this law, the burden of providing clear and convincing evidence for punitive damages falls on the plaintiff (which is a higher burden of proof than normal).
Because the laws concerning punitive damages and when to plead them vary between states, you’ll need to check your state’s laws to determine whether to ask for punitive damages in your civil complaint or by motion later on.
Cases that involve punitive damages are complex and might necessitate consultation with an attorney. Focus on compensatory damages first, then try for punitive damages after if you think you have a case.