In a personal injury claim, punitive damages are sometimes awarded. The main purpose of punitive damages is to punish behavior that is particularly reckless, offensive, or dangerous. They are also imposed as a way of deterring persons from committing the same type of conduct. Punitive damages are not really meant to compensate the person for the losses caused by the injury; that is the role of compensatory damages.
For instance, suppose that a person was injured in a car accident. If the car accident was not accompanied by reckless or intentional behavior, the person will usually receive a compensatory damages award for their injuries. However, if the defendant acted recklessly (such as driving 60 mph in 35 mph zone), the court may issue a punitive damages award in order to address the reckless aspect of their behavior. Thus, not all cases involve a punitive damages award.
The court will look for the following elements to be satisfied before awarding punitive damages:
- The plaintiff must first be awarded other types of damages, such as compensatory, nominal, or restitution damages. Punitive damages are never awarded by themselves.
- The defendant in the case must have acted in a way that is more than merely negligent or accidental; for example they must have acted maliciously or purposefully.
- The punitive damages must be awarded in an amount that is “relatively proportionate” to the actual damages. Punitive damages for excessive amounts are considered unconstitutional.
- Punitive damages which exceed a 10:1 ratio are considered unconstitutional. For instance, if the initial award was $10,000, the punitive damage award cannot exceed $100,000.
- They are usually available only for acts that directly harm the plaintiff
Punitive damages are often limited to a certain amount. Limits on punitive damages may consist of a set amount (such as a maximum of $500,000), which may vary by state. Or, they may be calculated according to the amount of compensatory damages (such as twice or three times the amount of compensatory damages). In almost every case, it is usually a requirement that there be a compensatory damages award before there can be a punitive damages award.
Calculation of punitive damages is often done very careful and is closely scrutinized. This is in order to prevent abuses of the system, as in the past, some plaintiffs would claim an exorbitant amount of punitive damages. More recently, many states have placed caps and limits on punitive damages.
Punitive damages may be awarded for various acts in a personal injury claim especially when the act was intentional. Examples of conduct that usually result in punitive damages may include:
- Extreme negligence in a medical malpractice case, such as performing the wrong surgery or leaving a surgical implement in the patient’s body.
- Conduct that is extremely dangerous and exposes the public to a high degree of harm (such as taking out a weapon in a crowded place).
- Conduct that displays an extreme disregard for laws and statutes (such as driving at speeds well above the limit, or "joy riding").
- Continuing with actions even though the defendant knows, or should have reason to know that the conduct may cause injury to another person.
Punitive damages do have limits. Many states cap the amount of the punitive damages that can be awarded to a plaintiff on the actual damages awarded in the case. These limits exist because punitive damages are a form of punishment, and so must be used fairly. They also exist to reform tort law, making it more difficult for plaintiffs to seek exorbitant damages for wrongful acts and making the legal system more predictable.
Limits on punitive damages may consist of a set amount (such as a maximum of $500,000), which may vary by state. Some states also give some or even all punitive damages to charity rather than to the plaintiff, so that the defendant is punished, but the plaintiff does not profit from that punishment.
Obtaining a punitive damages award can often be complicated, since each state has very specific rules regarding the limits and calculations of such awards. You may need to hire a personal injury lawyer if you need assistance with any personal injury claims that might involve punitive damages. Your attorney can help provide you with legal advice on the claim, and can determine what options you have in terms of legal damages.