In general, punitive damages are a type of monetary legal remedy that a plaintiff will be able to recover for an injury or a financial loss when they prevail in a civil lawsuit. A court will typically issue punitive damages to a prevailing plaintiff in certain situations. In particular, this usually happens when the defendant in a civil case commits a wrongdoing that is so egregious or outrageous that it requires more than a standard damages award to remedy the injuries or financial losses that a plaintiff suffered. 

Punitive damages are normally reserved for extreme cases and are rarely ever awarded. These types of legal damages are intended to both punish a defendant for their wrongdoings and to deter them as well as other potential defendants from carrying out the same kind of illegal conduct again in the future. 

In some cases, the amount of punitive damages that a defendant is ordered to pay to a plaintiff can be very high. This is especially true in situations wherein a defendant’s unlawful conduct is particularly abhorrent and deliberate.

Although there are no laws that provide the maximum cost of punitive damages for each and every individual claim, the Supreme Court of the United States has issued prior opinions that limit the amount of punitive damages that a plaintiff can collect.

To learn more about the requirements and limitations on punitive damage awards in your state, you should speak to a local personal injury attorney for further legal guidance. 

Are Punitive Damages Always Available?

As previously mentioned, punitive damages awards are not always available in every case. Instead, a defendant must have intentionally or willfully caused a plaintiff to suffer such harm that the law views their conduct as morally reprehensible. Many states have also placed statutory limits, also known as damage caps, on the amount of punitive damages that a plaintiff is allowed to collect based on the type of claim they have filed in civil court.

Punitive damages may also only be awarded in cases where a plaintiff receives actual or compensatory damages as well. If the plaintiff does not receive any other type of legal damages, then most states will not permit the plaintiff to recover a punitive damages award. The reason for this is because punitive damages awards are often calculated based on the actual damages awarded to a prevailing plaintiff in a civil lawsuit.

In addition, punitive damages are usually only available to remedy wrongful conduct that directly caused a plaintiff to suffer harm. Punitive damages are intended to ensure that this type of behavior does not happen again and does not cause a future plaintiff to suffer such extreme harms.

Although punitive damages are not awarded too often, there are particular types of punitive damages cases wherein they are known to appear. For example, a defendant who operates a motor vehicle at a speed that is way above the posted speed limit in a school zone and is also intoxicated, will most likely receive a punitive damages award if their actions result in causing severe injuries to a child. 

When Are Punitive Damages Awarded?

Punitive damages are generally awarded in extreme cases wherein a defendant’s actions were willful, deliberate, or violated the law or public policy in a way that went beyond a typical case. In other words, a defendant’s conduct will usually need to constitute more than mere negligence.

For example, the defendant must have deliberately acted with obvious disregard of their legal duties to others, such as driving well-over the imposed speed limit in a school zone.

Punitive damages must also be awarded as an extra supplement in addition to an actual or compensatory damages award. According to Supreme Court precedent, punitive damages cannot normally be awarded on their own without some other type of damages award.

In addition, a punitive damages award must be relatively proportionate to the compensatory or actual damages awarded in a civil case. In most jurisdictions, a punitive damages award will not exceed any amounts that are more than four times the amount of compensatory damages issued. The state of Montana is one of the only exceptions to this generally accepted principle complied with by most states. 

Lastly, punitive damages may only be awarded in states that allow for punitive damages. The claim must also be one that is recognized by the punitive damages statute in a particular state. The cost of a punitive damages award also cannot exceed the amount set by a state’s damage cap statute.

How Are Punitive Damages Calculated?

Punitive damages are typically restricted to an amount set by a damages statute in a particular state. For instance, one state may limit a plaintiff to recovering a treble amount of punitive damages, while another state may allow for a plaintiff to collect as much as five times the amount of punitive damages. Some other states may calculate punitive damages based on the amount of compensatory damages collected by a plaintiff. 

Regardless of the laws in a specific state, most states usually require that a plaintiff recover a compensatory damages award before punitive damages will ever be considered or awarded. Although the way in which punitive damages are calculated will vary widely by state, some general factors that may be considered when calculating a punitive damages award can include:

  • The type of claim that serves as the basis of a plaintiff’s lawsuit (e.g., a medical malpractice claim versus a breach of contract claim);
  • The amount that is being awarded in actual or compensatory damages in a case;
  • The rules on damage cap limits in a particular state; and/or
  • Whether a defendant’s actions were egregious or shocking enough to justify issuing a punitive damages award.

What Are Some Examples of Punitive Damages Awards in a Personal Injury Claim?

Some examples of punitive damages awards that may be issued in connection with a personal injury claim can include the following:

  • Class action lawsuits in which a large group of persons suffered the same or similar injuries (e.g., a defective products liability lawsuit);
  • Personal injury cases wherein a plaintiff suffers severe bodily injury;
  • Cases where a defendant’s actions placed members of the general public at an extreme risk of danger or high degree of harm, such as brandishing a loaded firearm in a crowd;
  • Medical malpractice lawsuits in which a doctor, surgeon, or hospital caused an injury to a patient that went beyond the standard negligent conduct;
  • Lawsuits wherein a defendant’s actions were intentional or deliberately executed; and/or
  • Cases in which a defendant’s wrongful conduct was motivated by malice, ill will, or where their actions exceeded the norms accepted by society.

Some more specific examples of personal injury claims wherein a punitive damages award may be issued include drunk driving lawsuits, motor vehicle collisions, defamation cases, and/or unusual assault and battery cases.

Are There Any Limitations on Punitive Damages?

As previously discussed, there may be certain limitations on punitive damage awards. These limitations or restrictions are known as punitive damage caps, which will often vary in accordance with individual state law. The reason as to why punitive damage caps by state exist is because punitive damages are intended to be a form of punishment and thus must be fairly apportioned to defendants. 

Another reason as to why punitive damage caps by state exist is because they were meant to reform basic tort laws. For instance, imposing a cap on punitive damages often makes it harder for a plaintiff to recover large sums of money for a defendant’s wrongful conduct. 

Punitive damages also help to make the legal system and the outcome of civil lawsuits more predictable for both plaintiffs and defendants, which in turn, assists their lawyers in drafting legal documents.

In addition, some states have punitive damage statutes that award either an entire or a partial punitive damages award to charity, as opposed to the injured party. This way a defendant will still be punished, but the plaintiff will not make a profit off their punishment.

Other states may focus the attention on the ability of a defendant to pay punitive damages based on their income earnings. For example, the state of Montana does not allow punitive damages to exceed one million dollars or three times the amount that a defendant is worth, whichever of the two amounts is lower.

Lastly, the majority of states will not permit punitive damages to be awarded to a plaintiff if no other types of legal damages are issued in a case.

Should I Hire a Lawyer If I Need Help with Punitive Damages?

Recovering punitive damages in a civil lawsuit can often be difficult to do without the help of a lawyer. Each state has its own rules on when these types of damages are allowed, how to calculate them if they are allowed for a particular claim, and the specific amount at which they are capped at within a certain jurisdiction. Thus, it may be in your best interest to hire a local personal injury lawyer for further legal guidance on how to collect a punitive damages award.

An experienced personal injury lawyer who works in your area will already be familiar with the statutes and legal requirements for collecting punitive damages in a civil lawsuit. Your lawyer will also be able to offer you any legal services that may be necessary to resolving the underlying personal injury claim in your case. In addition, your lawyer can discuss your legal options and rights that may be afforded to you under the laws in your state.

Finally, if you need to appear in court and/or if you need to submit proposed instructions regarding punitive damages to a court, your lawyer will be able to provide legal representation and can perform such legal tasks on your behalf as well.