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What Are Punitive Damages?

Car Accident Lawyer

Punitive damages, also known as exemplary damages or vindictive damages, are a type of monetary compensation that a judge or a jury may award to a plaintiff in a certain type civil lawsuit. Unlike compensatory damages, which are intended to compensate the plaintiff for actual losses or harm suffered, punitive damages are designed to punish the defendant for their wrongful conduct and deter them and others from engaging in similar behavior in the future.  In essence, you can have the same exact injuries as another person in a different type of case, but be awarded additional money just to send a message to the defendants that their behavior is unacceptable and reprehensible.

How Do Punitive Damages Differ From Regular Damages?

Other than the fact that they are simply meant to punish a Defendant’s conduct rather than compensate the Plaintiff, there are some other distinctions regarding punitive damages according to a car accident lawyer from our friends at Kiefer & Kiefer.

Standard of Proof: In some legal systems, punitive damages may require a higher standard of proof than compensatory damages. While compensatory damages are awarded when the plaintiff proves their case by a preponderance of the evidence (i.e., it’s more likely than not that the defendant’s actions caused harm), punitive damages sometimes require clear and convincing evidence or proof of gross negligence, willful misconduct, malice, or fraud on the part of the defendant.  A lawyer can advise you of what the jurisdiction of your case requires for proof of these damages.

Types of Cases: Punitive damages are most commonly awarded in cases involving DWIs, child molestation, and other intentional torts (such as assault, fraud, domestic violence or defamation) or in cases of gross negligence. They are less frequently awarded in contract disputes or cases involving simple negligence.

Amount: The amount of punitive damages can vary widely and is usually left to the discretion of the court or jury. The goal is to make the punishment significant enough to deter similar behavior. In some cases, punitive damages can be many times greater than the compensatory damages awarded to the plaintiff.  The Supreme Court recently placed a cap on damages of 9x the amount of the compensatory damages; however, they did state that they would not comment on whether there would be a case that was so reprehensible that an award of additional punitive damages may be justified.  This means that they have not ruled out an award of 10x the amount of compensatory damages.

What does this mean? 

Let’s say you are hit by a drunk driver in a jurisdiction that allows punitive damages for being injured by a drunk driver, like Louisiana.  You have a severe neck injury and undergo surgery, and the amount of compensatory damages a jury awards is $500,000 – which means the jury determined that to be sufficient to compensate you for your medical bills, loss wages, and pain and suffering.  Under the Supreme Court precedent, the jury could be justified in awarding $4.5 million of punitive damages, for a total award of $5 million – just to send a message to the defendants.

It’s important to note that the availability and standards for punitive damages can vary significantly from one jurisdiction to another, so the specific rules and procedures governing punitive damages will depend on the applicable legal system and local laws. Obviously, this is a serious weapon to use in your case if you have an attorney who is experienced in handling punitive damage cases. If you or someone you love is injured in an accident, contact a lawyer near you for help immediately.