What are punitive damages?

In any lawsuit, the plaintiff must establish liability (that the defendant violated a legal duty), causation (that the defendant’s action or inaction was the cause of the harm to the plaintiff), and damages (how the plaintiff was harmed).  There are generally two types of damages: actual damages and punitive damages.

Actual damages are just what they sound like – they represent the actual harm to the plaintiff.  For example, if you are injured in a car accident, your actual damages would include compensation for your injuries which may include medical bills, pain and suffering, and lost wages.

Punitive damages are a separate type of damages and are largely unrelated to the actual harm to the plaintiff.  Instead, punitive damages are meant to punish the defendant for some particularly bad conduct.  A classic example of punitive damages might be a situation where you are injured by a drunk driver.  In that situation, the law allows for the jury to award not only damages to make you whole, but also damages to punish the driver.  And that makes sense – someone who is particularly reckless should suffer a larger verdict than someone who was merely negligent.

Punitive damages aren’t applicable in every case and most often don’t apply.  However, if the defendant has acted not just negligently, but recklessly or even intentionally, then punitive damages are a very real possibility.  And punitive damages might apply in most any type of case, whether it involves a drunk driving accident, a construction case where a contractor intentionally cut corners or did not pull permits, or a product defect action where a large company decided to put the public at risk for the sake of profits.  One of the more famous examples of punitive damages comes from the tobacco litigation, including one award in 2002 of $28 billion in punitives.

This is where a good attorney can help.  A TV lawyer who wants to quickly settle your case may not do the investigation necessary to determine if there are facts that might warrant punitive damages.  In some cases, that’s a game-changer.