If you have been injured by another’s malicious or reckless behavior, you could receive punitive damages in addition to compensation. However, punitive damages are relatively uncommon in personal injury lawsuits, and each case is unique. Therefore, it can be challenging to estimate how much punitive damages are worth.
Although most personal injury cases do not qualify for punitive damages, it can be worth consulting with our experienced personal injury attorneys to determine which damages apply to your specific case. Contact Morgan & Morgan today for free, no-obligation legal advice.
What Are Punitive Damages?
Punitive damages are awarded by a court and determined by the jury in a trial. Such damages are designed to punish a defendant and deter them and others from behaving similarly in the future. Punitive damages are relatively rare in personal injury lawsuits and generally awarded in cases where a corporation or other large entity deliberately caused harm.
Although punitive damages are not designed to compensate the victim, victims will receive the amount. Punitive damages are usually given together with compensatory damages such as medical bills and wage losses and can drastically increase the amount a plaintiff recovers in a lawsuit.
What Warrants Punitive Damages?
The following actions and behaviors could result in a court awarding punitive damages:
Negligence alone does not warrant punitive damages. However, gross negligence or recklessness by a defendant could result in the court awarding punitive damages. This could occur, for example, when a drunk or excessively speeding driver causes an accident resulting in serious injury. Although the driver did not deliberately inflict harm to the victim(s), their behavior was a danger to other road users’ life and limb. Likewise, a court could decide that punitive damages are appropriate when a defendant knew that their actions or behaviors could lead to others getting harmed, but they carried on regardless.
Willful intent in the context of personal injury law means deliberately and intentionally causing harm to another. If you or a loved one suffered a severe injury due to another party deliberately attacking you and causing harm, a court could award punitive damages.
Some defendants in personal injury cases are found guilty of committing a crime. For example, a reckless driver may have violated several traffic laws when causing a catastrophic car crash. Crimes such as violent robberies, assaults, and murder can also lead to civil lawsuits. If the defendant committed a crime while causing your injuries, punitive damages could be more likely than in other personal injury lawsuits.
When Are Punitive Damages Awarded?
Only a few personal injury cases qualify for punitive damages. Before a court considers awarding punitive damages, several factors will be taken into account, including:
- Whether the defendant’s conduct was grossly negligent, malicious, willful, or criminal
- Whether punitive damages were awarded in similar lawsuits
It is important to note that each state has its own criteria for applying punitive damages. Some jurisdictions are more likely to award punitive damages than others. In some states, including Washington, Nebraska, and Louisiana, punitive damages are entirely unavailable.
The Difference Between Compensatory and Punitive Damages
The fundamental difference between compensatory and punitive damages is:
- Compensatory damages are designed to provide justice and compensation to those wronged by a defendant’s negligence or wrongdoing.
- Punitive damages are awarded by a court to deter the defendant and others from acting similarly in the future and harming others.
In other words, compensatory damages seek to make the plaintiff “whole” again and reimburse them for the expenses they incurred due to the defendant’s reckless or malicious conduct. Punitive damages are separate from compensation and not designed to repay the plaintiff for their expenses or suffering. Instead, punitive damages are supposed to punish the defendant.
Examples of Compensatory Damages in Civil Lawsuits
Compensation is highly case-specific and will depend on the facts of your incident and the extent and permanence of your injuries. Your monetary expenses, such as medical bills and loss of income, will also be taken into account to calculate the compensation you are entitled to. In general, harmed individuals could receive awards for:
- Wage losses
- Pain and suffering
- Medical expenses
- Transport costs
- Scarring and disfigurement
- Loss of life enjoyment
However, you could also receive other or additional compensation, depending on your actual damages and accident.
How Much Are Punitive Damages?
Since punitive damages will depend on various facts, there is no average amount. The actual damages awarded to victims can vary greatly. In some high-profile lawsuits, the jury awarded multi-billion dollars in punitive damages. One such notable case is the judgement against tobacco giant Philip Morris. The company had to pay $28 billion in punitive damages in 2002 after getting sued by an individual plaintiff suffering from inoperable lung cancer.
However, most punitive damages are much more modest. According to the Center for Justice & Democracy (CJ&D), the average amount in punitive damages awarded to plaintiffs in civil cases was $64,000 in 2005.
Which Factors Determine Punitive Damages?
Generally, a jury will decide on the appropriate amount of punitive damages, which should be proportionate to the compensation awarded. To arrive at a figure, the court will consider the scope of the defendant’s misconduct, the extent and severity of the plaintiff’s injury, and the defendant’s financial background. After all, punitive damages should have a deterrent effect and “hurt” the defendant financially. Therefore, a global corporation found guilty of wrongdoing will typically face much greater punitive damages than an individual who maliciously caused an accident.
Examples of Punitive Damages
Although rare, punitive damages can potentially arise in all kinds of civil lawsuits involving individual defendants, companies, and others. However, courts are generally more likely to award punitive damages to unscrupulous corporations. Punitive damages can be granted, for example, when a company continues to sell a dangerous product or drug for profit-driven reasons, knowing that the product could cause injury or death to consumers. Punitive damages are also awarded in particularly egregious medical malpractice cases.
Other cases where a court could award punitive damages include:
- Drunk, distracted, or otherwise reckless driving
- Bad faith insurance claims
- Nursing home abuse and neglect
- Assaults and attacks
Individuals could be ordered to pay punitive damages if they injured another with intent. Punitive damages are designed to make an example of the wrongdoer, whether an individual or a corporation.
Are You the Victim of Another’s Deliberate Misconduct?
If you or a loved one got hurt due to another’s deliberate wrongdoing or recklessness, you have legal rights. Contacting an attorney as soon as possible can help clarify your next best steps and protect your rights to compensation. It is important to note that most states have statutes of limitations for filing personal injury lawsuits. In other words, every state sets its deadline for filing a suit, which could be as short as one year or four years or more, depending on the state you reside in.
Once the deadline has passed, you may have lost the right to fight for compensation or receive punitive damages. Waiting too long to take legal action can also make it harder or impossible to gather relevant evidence, such as witness statements.
Our determined and caring attorneys at Morgan & Morgan have been helping the injured recover what they deserve for decades. We know how to build a comprehensive case against a defendant and fight for full and fair recovery. If there is a chance for punitive damages, we will argue strongly for your case and fight aggressively for justice.