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What Are Punitive Damages?

When one party injures another, the injured party can file a lawsuit to obtain compensation for his or her losses caused by the other party’s actions. In most cases, the injured party and his or her attorney must prove that the defendant was negligent. Negligence defines any action that another reasonable person in the same situation would not have done. However, cases can be more complex (and more financially impactful to the defendant) if the defendant was grossly negligent or willfully reckless his or her behavior leading to the incident in question.

Proving Loss

In a typical personal injury case, the injured party sues for the damages and losses he or she suffered because of the other party’s negligence. Proving these losses usually entails obtaining a medical report of the victim’s injuries, a police report detailing the incident, and any other necessary documentation. The court will assess the extent of the plaintiff’s injuries and award compensation accordingly. In most personal injury cases, the injured party can recover damages for:

  • Medical expenses resulting from the incident. This can include hospital bills, emergency response fees, prescription costs, rehabilitative services, and subsequent surgeries and procedures.
  • Pain and suffering. The plaintiff’s attorney will consult with experts to testify as to the extent of the plaintiff’s injuries and the pain that the injuries likely caused. In some cases, this can extend to psychological distress that the plaintiff suffered. Though it may sound difficult to quantify pain and suffering with a dollar figure, the judge in a personal injury case will take expert witness testimony into account when assigning compensation to the plaintiff.
  • Lost income. Some injuries may render the injured party unable to return to work for an extended period – or at all in some cases. The judge will consider this and award compensation for the wages that the injured party would have reasonably expected to earn.
  • Property damage. Some personal injury cases, such as car accidents, involve property damage. The plaintiff can claim compensation for a damaged vehicle or other property destroyed in the incident.

Punitive Damages

These types of damages are commonly seen in personal injury cases. In rare instances, the judge of a personal injury case may also assign punitive damages. Punitive damages, as the name implies, are intended to punish the defendant for gross negligence or intentional acts that harm others. Some examples would be:

  • A drunk driver injures another motorist and renders him unable to resume his usual job. The judge awards the plaintiff compensation for his medical costs, pain and suffering, property damage to his car, and lost income for his new inability to work. Because this was the defendant driver’s third DUI offense, the judge also awards punitive damages to discourage future offenses.
  • A pharmaceutical company knowingly releases a drug with severe side effects. Patients who take this drug experience these side effects and form a class-action lawsuit against the company. In addition to the medical costs and pain and suffering damages, the judge also awards punitive damages because the company knowingly put its consumers at risk.

Punitive damages typically only come into play in lawsuits that involve a person or party with a willful intention to endanger others or a complete disregard for public safety. This could include personal injury lawsuits, product liability claims, third-party claims, and fraud cases. Punitive damages also discourage insurance companies from letting claims go to court. If one of their insured drivers injures another party recklessly, they’re far less likely to contest the claim or attempt to lowball the injured party with a settlement.

Seek Representation

If another person or entity has injured you, it’s vital that you connect with a reliable attorney to represent your case. If the defendant was grossly negligent or intentionally endangered public safety, your attorney can help convince the judge that punitive damages are warranted – increasing the compensation you receive for your case.