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The Question of Punitive Damages: When, Why & How

— September 16, 2020

Not all victims can expect to receive punitive damages in their personal injury claims, but you must not give up on them if you consider them to be valid in your case.

Damages are perhaps the most vital element of a personal injury lawsuit. In fact, they’re the reason why you file a suit in the first place. However, they go much beyond the compensatory damages that most victims know about. While these are meant to compensate you for the injuries caused by the negligence of the guilty person, you can get much more in the form of punitive damages. Apart from giving the victims what they deserve, the objective of damages is to punish the guilty party and also to protect the society by deterring such actions in the future. 

It is important to understand the concept of punitive damages because they can significantly increase the settlement value you get. But they are often governed by rigorous standards that make them quite complex and at times, controversial. You can expect the opponents to claim them as unfair and even excessive. So it makes sense to consult an expert attorney and find whether you are entitled to such damages. Further, they can also help you get the claim you rightfully deserve. Let us try and answer the key questions on punitive damages.

When are punitive damages awarded?

Unlike the conventional compensation in personal injury claims, these are a distinct type of damages applicable only to a few specific circumstances. The law restricts the availability to rare cases in which the defendant acted intentionally, fraudulently or willfully and wantonly. A majority of personal injury lawsuits are based on negligence, which is inconsistent with fraudulent or intentional actions. However, when the negligence involves willful and wanton behavior, it is regarded as a criminal or unreasonable act that makes them liable for punishment. 

The common cases when you can expect to receive this extra are the ones involving gross negligence, outrageous carelessness, malicious motives, acts of violence and intent to harm or kill. Particularly egregious acts such as in medical malpractice claims make the medical professionals liable while recklessness, such as drunk driving, entitles the victims to receive them in auto accident claims. Environmental torts and class actions are some other circumstances when these penalties may be imposed. A judge will order additional punitive damages when he or she deems that the compensatory damages are not an adequate remedy for the victim. Further, they may also do it when they want to inflict retribution on the responsible person for egregious acts. 

Why are punitive damages awarded?

For a victim, getting extra settlement value from your claim can make all the difference to taking your life back on track. But the law has better reasons for imposing these penalties on the guilty party. Here are the reasons why they do it:

  • The primary objective is to punish the wrongful behaviour that has caused pain, suffering and financial loss to the victim. Obviously, punishing them financially is a good resolution because it compensates the victim and teaches a lesson to the guilty person so that they would not repeat their offense in the future.
  • Punitive damages serve as “exemplary” penalties because they not only dissuade the offender from repeating the mistake but set an example for the society as a whole. Financial loss serves as an effective deterrent and the court makes sure that it is big enough to make people take notice. So you can expect the value of these penalties to be significantly greater than the initial compensation value.

    Close-up of $100 bills; image by Jeshoots, via
    Close-up of $100 bills; image by Jeshoots, via

How can you receive punitive damages? 

Considering the controversial nature of these penalties, the courts are usually reluctant about awarding them. Having a seasoned personal injury attorney to handle your case is vital if you want to maximize your chances. Experts at McCutchen Sexton Napurano – The Law Firm emphasize that the burden of proof is much greater in such cases. They recommend that you must have very strong evidence against the guilty party to have a solid case. Not only will you have to validate that you were injured because of their actions, but also that they were guilty of gross or criminal negligence. 

Another peculiar fact about punitive damages is that they are never awarded by themselves. You will receive them only if you have been awarded compensation in the first place. The case is strong only if the other party has a high financial worth. Obviously, the courts can collect money only if a defendant has it. Therefore, you are more likely to get them when pitted against a large company that owns a hefty insurance policy.

The value of punitive damages 

Several states have no caps on punitive damages, which mean that judges can award for as much as they appropriate for the situation. They would hear out both parties, consider the severity of the injury and gravity of the error to decide the value of the penalty. If an additional restitution appears necessary, the amount has to be relatively proportionate to the realistic compensatory damage award. After all, a 10:1 ratio would be unrealistic and oppressive. 

For this reason, many states have implemented a cap on the value of these damages to keep things balanced for both the parties. There are strict state-wise standards in place for the calculation of the amount that defendants need to pay as punitive damages. The aim is to ensure that the victims get what they deserve while the defendants have a lesson to remember, without the courts being unrealistic with the punishment. Also, these cases set a benchmark for everyone who may get involved in similar ones in the future.

Not all victims can expect to receive punitive damages in their personal injury claims, but you must not give up on them if you consider them to be valid in your case. The best thing to do would be to seek advice and guidance from an expert personal injury lawyer who has experience with such cases. While you deserve to be awarded for the pain and suffering borne, there is sometimes a need to set an example for the community as a whole. This is something your lawyer would advise you about, specifically considering the circumstances and implications of the mishap. 

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