In every lawsuit seeking compensation for a personal injury, the victim is entitled to ask for an award of damages. In most lawsuits, victims seek only compensatory damages. In some cases, they may also be awarded punitive damages.
Compensatory and punitive damages serve different purposes. Compensatory damages allow a victim to recover losses that result from another person’s harmful behavior. Punitive damages punish a wrongdoer. Compensatory damages are available in every personal injury case, but punitive damages are only available under limited circumstances.
As the name suggests, compensatory damages are meant to compensate victims for their injuries. As a general rule, compensatory damages are intended to make a victim whole. In other words, to the extent that the goal can be accomplished with money, compensatory damages try to return the victim to the position the victim occupied before the injury occurred.
Measuring financial losses is relatively easy. When an accident victim incurs medical bills, compensation includes reimbursement for medical expenses. When an accident victim is likely to need medical treatment, physical therapy, or other services in the future to recover from the injury, the anticipated cost of those services is part of the compensatory damages the victim should receive.
When an accident victim is unable to work because of accident injuries, compensation includes reimbursement of the victim’s wage loss. A disabled victim who will probably never return to the same employment is entitled to compensation for loss of future earning capacity. The expense of vocational rehabilitation, if needed, is also included in the victim’s compensation.
Permanently disabling injuries often lead to expenses that must be incurred to cope with the disability. Adding wheelchair ramps to a home, the cost of a hand-operated vehicle, and a caretaker’s salary are among the expenses that might be included in compensatory damages when injuries are disabling.
No amount of money can take away pain, suffering, and the emotional scars left by physical injuries. However, money can offset suffering by improving the quality of an accident victim’s life in other ways. Juries are therefore allowed to award compensatory damages for pain, suffering, and emotional distress.
Unlike compensatory damages, punitive damages are not intended to compensate the victim. Instead, they are designed to punish the person who caused the victim’s injury or to deter the person from repeating the conduct that caused the victim’s injury.
Punitive damages are not available in every case, or even in most cases, because punishment is usually left to the criminal justice system. Injury victims who bring civil lawsuits are nevertheless allowed to seek punitive damages in certain egregious situations.
In most states, punitive damages are allowed when the person who has been sued:
- intended to harm the victim;
- acted maliciously, even if no specific harm was intended; or
- acted with reckless indifference to the harm that might be caused.
While lawsuits can be brought to seek compensation for an intentional harm (such as a lawsuit for battery), insurance does not cover intentional acts. Unless the person being sued has assets that can be used to pay a judgment, intentional wrongdoing is usually punished by the criminal justice system.
Punitive damages are more likely to be sought in lawsuits that address reckless or malicious behavior. For example, punitive damages might be awarded in a lawsuit against a nursing home that abused a patient, if the nursing home owner knew that patients were being abused and did nothing to stop it. Punitive damages might also be awarded against a church that knew about, but failed to prevent, sexual abuse committed by members of its clergy.
Punitive damages are not available in most personal injury lawsuits for negligence. However, punitive damages might be available when the person being sued knowingly engaged in very dangerous behavior that resulted in the victim’s injury, including:
- Drunk driving
- Drag racing
- Careless use of explosives
- Marketing a product (including a medication) that it knows to be dangerous
- Performing a medical procedure under the influence of drugs
A lawyer, like a personal injury lawyer, can help accident victims understand whether punitive damages might be available for their injuries.
Limitations on Punitive Damages
Some states set a cap on awards of punitive damages, either generally or in certain kinds of cases. In addition, the Supreme Court has ruled that punitive damages should not usually be more than ten times the amount awarded as compensatory damages. That rule is not set in stone, but judges are guided by it in most cases.
Punitive damages are typically paid to the injury victim to vindicate the time and effort required to win the damages award. However, some states require at least some of a punitive damages award to be paid to the state instead of the victim. Those states sometimes apply that rule only to punitive damages awarded for certain kinds of claims (such as product liability claims).
A few laws specify the kind of punitive damages that can be awarded. For example, in a federal lawsuit against an employer for unpaid overtime, the employee can recover double the amount of the unpaid wages if the employer knew that it was violating the law. Again, a lawyer can advise victims about the specific punitive damages law that applies in the state where the injury occurred.