In any personal injury case, one party, known as the “plaintiff”, will usually suffer some sort of injury, property damage, or other losses.

Plaintiffs are often awarded compensatory damages in a personal injury lawsuit to compensate them for personal injury, death, or property damage caused by the defendant. This is generally paid by the party that caused the damage, called the “defendant”.
Compensatory damages include losses such as medical expenses, lost wages, and repair/replacement of property. Compensatory damages are just one kind of damages award available to the plaintiff in a personal injury suit. In addition to compensatory damages, a plaintiff may be able receive other damages, such as exemplary damages, also known as punitive damages.

What are Exemplary Damages?

Exemplary damages are awarded to a plaintiff to punish the defendant. The court may also award punitive damages to deter (prevent) other individuals from committing the same or similar acts. For a plaintiff to receive exemplary damages, the defendant’s actions must generally be considered:

The actions must be so egregious or malicious that the defendant is used as a public example of how not to act. For instance, driving 30 miles per hour in a 25 mile per hour zone might not be considered grossly reckless.

In this type of situation, a person who was injured by the driver might received compensatory damages for any injuries they sustained. However, courts might be reluctant to issue a punitive or exemplary damages award in this case.

In comparison, driving 75 miles per hour in a 25 mile per hour zone might be considered grossly reckless. If a person was injured in that scenario, the court might issue a punitive damages award to the plaintiff on top of the compensatory damages. Injuries that are caused intentionally might also result in an exemplary damages award (such as when a driver purposely strikes another vehicle with theirs).

When Will a Plaintiff Receive Punitive Damages?

Not every plaintiff who wins a personal injury case will be awarded exemplary damages. The court will award the money after careful analysis to determine if the following requirements are satisfied:

  • The plaintiff was awarded compensatory damages, restitution, or nominal damages;
  • The defendant acted in a purposeful or malicious way;
  • The punitive damages are calculated in an amount that is proportionate to the actual damages, such as two or three times the amount of the original damages; and/or
  • The punitive damages are awarded for the direct harm of the plaintiff.

How are Exemplary Damages Calculated?

Exemplary damages are set according to the compensatory damages awarded to the plaintiff. Most states have a limit on how much a plaintiff can receive in exemplary damages. Typically, the plaintiff may receive up to about three times the compensatory award. Most states require a plaintiff receive compensatory damages before receiving any exemplary damages.

Generally speaking, punitive damages are not awarded in cases for breach of contract. However, if there is an individual tort or injury that happened in a contract setting, punitive damages can sometimes be awarded for the separate tort (for instance, if someone assaults someone during the contract formation process).

Keep in mind that awarding exemplary damages is always up to the court, and while it can be requested, the court can decide there is not enough reason to award it.

Are there any other Factors that would Prevent Exemplary Damages?

In many cases, there are actions that the plaintiff can take that might affect their ability to receive an exemplary or punitive damages award. One of the main instances is where the plaintiff has engaged in the same type of reckless or dangerous behavior.

For example, suppose the defendant caused the plaintiff injuries due to drunk driving. If the plaintiff is also found to be driving drunk at the time of the accident, then it can limit the amount of damages they receive. In some cases, they may be totally prevented from receiving damages. In this case, the plaintiff may be seen as contributorily negligent to the accident.

These types of judgments will vary from case to case, as each case has a unique set of circumstances. They may also vary depending on state and local laws.

Should I Contact an Attorney about Exemplary Damages?

You may need to contact a personal injury attorney near you if you need help understanding exemplary damages. An attorney will be able to help you determine whether you will be able to pursue exemplary damages in your case.