What Are Punitive Damages? And Will Your Personal Injury Case Include Them?

Most of the time, personal injury lawsuits are about recovering fair compensation for your injuries, lost wages and medical expenses. Sometimes, however, a defendant's actions are so outrageous that the court will level punitive damages when deciding what money to award the plaintiff. This article will help you understand punitive damages and whether or not they might be awarded in your case.

What Are Punitive Damages?

Punitive damages (also called "exemplary damages") are designed to punish the defendant, rather than compensate the plaintiff. They're also designed to deter other people from repeating the same bad acts that caused the plaintiff's injury.

It takes more than just ordinary negligence on the part of a defendant for a court to order punitive damages. A defendant's actions almost always have to be reckless in nature, instead. Recklessness occurs when there's a conscious knowledge of danger, but the defendant goes ahead and acts without any regard to the potential results of his or her behavior. It can also also exist when there is some intentional action on the part of the defendant that causes the harm.

For example, suppose that a fast food company is aware that its deep-fryers are faulty. It knows that employees using them are at risk of serious injuries. However, the company figures that the risk to its employees is worth less than it would cost to replace all of the deep-fryers in all of its restaurants, so it goes ahead and continues using the fryers anyhow.

After someone is injured, and the fore-knowledge of the restaurant company comes to light, the court may decide that the company's actions were needlessly reckless, not just negligent. The court may decide to level punitive damages against the company as a warning to other fast food companies to take employee safety seriously. 

Will Your Case Include Punitive Damages?

The majority of personal injury lawsuits never involve punitive damages. They occur in only about 2% of civil trials and average only around $40,000. Part of the reason they don't occur more often is that - in the past - some personal injury lawsuits included massive punitive damages that created a public outcry and political backlash against such awards.

Another reason that punitive damages are often small is that the U.S. Supreme Court has stated that the damages leveled must be "reasonable" in proportion to the amount of actual damages sustained by the plaintiff. Generally speaking, anything higher than a 4:1 ratio could be considered unreasonable if the amount is appealed (and it probably would be).

There are some cases, however, that certainly warrant exploration of punitive damages. These include lawsuits where:

  • your injuries were caused by a drunk driver
  • your injuries were caused by an assault
  • the plaintiff had been repeatedly made aware of the specific danger that caused your injuries
  • the plaintiff acted maliciously toward you for some reason
  • the plaintiff has lied about something or tried to hide evidence
  • the plaintiff expressed a lack of concern over the results of his or her actions

In all of these cases, not only would the court be justified in leveling punitive damages, but the action would help deter others from committing the same acts.

When you speak with your attorney such as Spiegal And Barbato LLP, discuss whether or not you will ask the court for punitive damages when you file your claim. Understand that not every case will qualify for punitive damages. If your claim does, your attorney will help you better understand how your state's laws can affect any punitive award you may receive.