What are Exemplary Damages?

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 What is a Personal Injury Claim?

When a plaintiff files a claim for a personal injury, they claim that they have sustained an injury, either physical injury, mental injury, or both, because of the actions of the defendant or the failure of a defendant to act. In these types of cases, courts may award plaintiffs money damages for personal injuries.

What Kind of Injury Does a Personal Injury Claim Involve?

When a plaintiff sustains a personal injury, it may damage their physical health, emotional health, or both. Physical injuries may include injuries to a plaintiff’s:

  • Organs;
  • Limbs; or
  • Other parts of the anatomy.

Injuries to a plaintiff’s mental health may include emotional pain and anguish which are related to the injury. It is important to be aware that a personal injury may not manifest instantly.

In some cases, injuries may worsen or even develop over time.

What Kinds of Acts Form the Basis of a Personal Injury Claim?

A personal injury may be the result of intentional conduct, such as when a defendant deliberately causes a victim to suffer an injury. Personal injuries may also occur unintentionally.

If unintentional injuries are the result of the negligence of another individual, then a plaintiff may file a lawsuit based on that negligent behavior. Examples of negligence cases may include, but are not limited to:

What are Damages Awards in a Personal Injury Lawsuit?

In personal injury cases, the filing party, called the plaintiff, has suffered some form of injury, property damage, or other loss. A plaintiff is often awarded compensatory damages in a personal injury lawsuit in order to compensate the plaintiff for things caused by the defendant, including:

  • Personal injury;
  • Death; or
  • Property damage.

Compensatory damages are usually paid by the party who caused the damage, referred to as the defendant. Compensatory damages may include compensation for:

  • Medical expenses;
  • Lost wages; and
  • Repairing or replacing property.

A compensatory damages award is just one type of damages award which may be available to a plaintiff in a personal injury lawsuit. In addition to compensatory damages awards, plaintiffs may also be able to receive other types of damages, such as exemplary damages, also referred to as punitive damages.

What are Exemplary Damages?

Exemplary damages are damages which are awarded to the plaintiff and are intended to punish the defendant. Courts may also award punitive damages in order to deter, or prevent, other individuals from committing the same or similar actions.

In order for a plaintiff to be awarded exemplary damages, a defendant’s actions must typically be considered:

The actions of a defendant must be so egregious or malicious that a defendant is used as a public example of conduct not to engage in. For example, driving 40 miles per hour in a 35 mile per hour speed zone will likely not be considered grossly reckless.

In this type of case, an individual who was injured by that driver may receive compensatory damages for the injuries they sustained. A court would likely be reluctant to issue punitive or exemplary damages in this type of case.

In contrast, if the defendant was driving 75 miles per hour in a 25 mile per hour speed zone, that conduct may be considered grossly reckless. If an individual was injured in this scenario, a court may award punitive damages to a plaintiff in addition to compensatory damages.

Injuries which are intentionally inflicted may also result in an exemplary damages award. For example, if a driver purposely strikes another vehicle with their vehicle.

When Will a Plaintiff Receive Punitive Damages?

Not all plaintiffs who win personal injury cases will be awarded exemplary damages. A court will award these damages to the plaintiff following a careful analysis to determine if the following requirements are met:

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

How are Exemplary Damages Calculated?

Exemplary damages are calculated based on the compensatory damages which are awarded to the plaintiff. The majority of states have limits on how much a plaintiff can receive in exemplary damages.

Typically, a plaintiff can receive up to about three times the amount of the compensatory damages award in exemplary damages. The majority of states require that the plaintiff receives compensatory damages prior to receiving exemplary damages.

In general, punitive damages are not awarded in breach of contract cases. If, however, there is an individual injury or tort which occurred in a contract case, punitive damages may be awarded for that separate tort.

For example, if an individual assaults another individual during the contract formation process. It is important to keep in mind that an award of exemplary damages is at the discretion of the court and, although exemplary damages can be awarded, the court may determine there is not enough reason to award them.

How Do Compensatory Damages Limit Exemplary Damages?

There are many states which place caps on punitive damages which are directly dependent upon the amount of compensatory damages which are awarded to the plaintiff. Compensatory damages are monetary damages which are awarded to a plaintiff to compensate for medical bills, property damage, and other harm which was suffered.

Punitive damages are awarded, in some states, based upon the amount of actual compensation which is awarded to a plaintiff. Some states place a limit on punitive damages in the form of an amount, such as $750,000 and others provide a ratio, such as 10:1, where punitive damages are not permitted to be more than 10 times the initial award.

Are There Any Other Factors that Would Prevent Exemplary Damages?

In many instances, there are actions which a plaintiff may have taken that would affect their ability to receive an exemplary damages award, or a punitive damages award. One of the main factors would be if the plaintiff engaged in the same type of dangerous, or reckless, behavior.

For example, suppose a defendant causes injuries to a plaintiff because of their drunk driving. If it was determined that the plaintiff was also driving drunk at the time of the accident, it may limit the amount of damages which they will receive.

In certain cases, a plaintiff may be totally prevented from receiving any damages at all because the plaintiff was contributorily negligent to the accident. These types of judgments may vary by case because every case has a unique set of circumstances and facts.

In addition, the laws of each state will vary regarding negligence as well as damages awards.

Should I Contact an Attorney about Exemplary Damages?

It is essential to have the assistance of a personal injury attorney for any issues, questions, or concerns you may have related to exemplary damages. Your attorney can review your case, determine if exemplary damages may be available in your case, and advise you of the laws in your state which govern damages.

It is important to have an attorney on your side to help obtain the best possible damages award for your case. Your attorney will know best how to present your case to the court so that you can obtain compensatory damages and exemplary damages, when available.


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