What Are Punitive Damages & When Can I Seek Them?

There are two different types of damages available in a personal injury lawsuit; compensatory and punitive. Compensatory damages are intended to “compensate” a plaintiff for any losses he or she has suffered or will suffer in the future. These losses are usually tangible, such as lost earnings and medical expenses.  In addition to tangible economic damages, a plaintiff is also entitled to non-economic damages referred to as “pain and suffering” and include intangible losses - such as physical pain and suffering, embarrassment, humiliation and loss of the enjoyment of life.

Punitive Damages:

Punitive damages, on the other hand, are intended to do much more than simply reimburse a plaintiff for demonstrable injuries. When a defendant's actions have been egregiously reckless or careless, punitive damages are available as an additional remedy.

Punitive damages are awarded in personal injury cases in which a defendant intended to cause harm or acted with a complete disregard for the plaintiff's safety. Courts have traditionally reserved punitive damage awards in particular cases and not when the defendant was merely negligent. In upholding punitive damage awards to plaintiffs, The United States Supreme Court has stated that punitive damages illustrate a jury's “moral condemnation” of the defendant. Punitive damages, therefore, have both a deterrent and retributive effect on a defendant.

Supreme Court Cases on Punitive Damage Amounts:

Juries have been known to give plaintiffs multi-million dollar punitive damages awards.  Defendants have regularly appealed these large amounts, claiming that such awards are excessive and violate the Due Process Clauses of the 5th and 14th Amendments of the United States Constitution. As a result, the Supreme Court has examined and reexamined the excessive nature and constitutionality of such punitive awards.

The Supreme Court decided that an award must always be reasonably related to the plaintiff's injury in order for a high amount of punitive damages to be constitutional. As the Court also recently held in Philip Morris USA v. Williams, juries cannot punish or penalize defendants for harm caused to anyone but the plaintiff or plaintiffs. For instance, the jury could not expect cigarette giant Philip Morris, the defendant in this case, to pay an amount related to injuries to all smokers, but should only have to pay punitive damages for the injuries of the specific plaintiff in each specific case.

Once punitive damages are deemed appropriate, the next question the Supreme Court must analyze is what amount is constitutional? To decide whether a punitive damages award is excessive or not, the Court has looked at the ratio of the amount of compensatory damages compared to the amount of punitive damages awarded.

In 1993, the Court heard the case TXO Production Corp. v. Alliance Resources Corp., deciding not to set a strict mathematical calculation or bright line for excessive or acceptable punitive damages awards. Ten years later, however, the Supreme Court commented that the Due Process Clause will generally not allow punitive awards higher than a single digit ratio to the same party's compensatory damages award. In addition to the general single-digit rule, every state has the power to further limit punitive awards through statutes, and many states have set specific limits on these awards.

When Can You Seek Punitive Damages?

If you wish to file a lawsuit, it is important to contact an attorney to help decide whether you are entitled to punitive damages. If a defendant has acted in a particularly egregious or careless manner, your attorney may seek punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages.

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