What Are Punitive Damages?

In personal injury law, the term punitive damages is often mentioned. The phrase is commonplace because of its mention in high-profile cases and verdicts. Punitive damages are a monetary award that the court orders the defendant to pay the plaintiff in a civil case.

Most of the time, the plaintiff is awarded money to pay for medical bills or property damage occurring because of the action of the defendant. Punitive damages are a method of punishing the defendant for their conduct and to deter their future behavior. When punitive damages are paid, the court orders that the defendant must pay the plaintiff a set amount decided by the court. If the court decides the defendant must pay punitive damages, they are paid in addition to money awarded to pay for medical bills and other expenses resulting from the defendant’s actions.

Punitive damages are sometimes called exemplary damages and are often awarded to set a public example. Some states require punitive damages awarded to be divided between the plaintiff and the state in a split-recovery statute. In most states, there are limits on the amounts of damages that can be awarded to the plaintiff. This is usually no more than four times the amount of damages awarded.

These damages are awarded in personal injury such as slip and fall, car accidents, and medical malpractice lawsuits where injuries are provable. In some cases, punitive damages are awarded in insurance liability cases.

When deciding whether to award punitive damages, several factors are considered:

  • The scale of the defendant’s actions.
  • If similar cases were awarded damages.
  • The monetary difference between the plaintiff’s injuries and the amount of damages requested.

Higher amounts of punitive damages may be awarded in cases where these circumstances apply:

  • Injuries and harm sustained are difficult to value.
  • Injuries are difficult to detect, might appear in the future, or will need continuous care.
  • The defendant’s conduct was extremely vile

Punitive damages are infrequently awarded, but are substantial. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2005 punitive damages were sought in 12% of cases out of 25,000 tort and contract trials. Damages were awarded in only 5% of the cases. Out of these cases, the median damage award was $64,000. 13% were awarded damages of $1 million or more.


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