Punitive damages can be available in some types of personal injury claims.  These are damages that are intended to punish offenders and to discourage them from committing the same type of offense.  They are mostly awarded in particularly extreme cases where the defendant acted intentionally, or in a way that greatly disregarded the plaintiff’s safety. 

Some general guidelines for how to calculate punitive damages include:

  • The defendant’s actions usually need to be greater than mere negligence.  That is, they need to have acted with an obvious disregard for principles of care and safety.  An example of this an intentional tort such as assault. 
  • Punitive damages aren’t usually awarded on their own.  They are generally issued as an accompaniment to “actual” damages such as compensatory damages (damages that are intended to reimburse the plaintiff for their losses).
  • Punitive damages must be “relatively proportionate” to the actual damages award.  In most jurisdictions, punitive damages cannot exceed four times the amount of compensatory damages

Some states place additional limitations on the amount of punitive damages that can be awarded.  This is especially true for most lawsuits involving medical malpractice.  For example, state limits on medical malpractice awards may range from $250,000 to $750,000 depending on the state.

When are Punitive Damages Awarded in a Personal Injury Claim?

As mentioned, the basic requirements for punitive damages include: particularly egregious conduct by the defendant, and an existing compensatory damages award (nominal or restitutionary damages may also suffice). 

Some examples of personal injury claims that may lead to a punitive damages award include:

  • Class actions where large numbers of persons were injured (such as in a toxic oil spill)
  • Cases where the defendant’s conduct was intentional
  • Conduct resulting in severe bodily injury to the plaintiff
  • Malpractice cases where a physician committed a blatant error
  • Cases where the defendant’s actions were motivated by ill-will or malicious motives, or where their conduct greatly exceeds acceptable social norms

What’s a Treble Damages Award?

A treble damages award simply refers to punitive damages that are three times or triple the amount of the award that they are normally entitled.  For example, if the compensatory damages amounted to $10,000, a treble damages award would allow the plaintiff to collect $30,000.

Similarly, a “double” damages award would result in two times the normal amount of damages.  Double and treble damages are awarded in cases where the judge decides they are appropriate. 

In order to collect a double or treble damages award, the state must have a statute approving such awards, and the plaintiff needs to specifically request the award (they aren’t granted automatically).  Lastly, a treble damages award can’t exceed the statute limits for damages award caps. 

How Can a Lawyer Help With Punitive Damages Awards?

Personal injury lawsuits can often present many legal challenges.  If you need help with how to calculate punitive damages, you may wish to contact a personal injury lawyer for advice.  Your attorney can help inform you as to whether you qualify for a punitive damages award, and if so, how much can be requested.  An experienced lawyer can assist you in filing for punitive damages if your state allows it.