What are punitive damages?

Frank S. Clowney III

Many people are familiar with concept of damages: a person that’s been wrongfully injured can sue the responsible party in court to receive compensation for the hardship they suffered.

In the terse language of the court, damages are intended to make the plaintiff whole again; in other words, return them to the state they enjoyed before the accident.

But far fewer people may know that the court, in exceptional circumstances, may award the plaintiff damages beyond what’s necessary to compensate him for their injuries. These are called punitive damages.

Sending a message to the defendant and society

When the court awards punitive damages, it wants to send a message to both that particular defendant and society in general. Hence, the plaintiff usually receives much more in damages than normal. The message being that the conduct in question will not be tolerated under any circumstances.

For this reason, the courts usually award punitive damages in extreme circumstances, and in cases where the defendant’s behavior was unusually reprehensible. Generally, the courts must deem the conduct worthy of ugly descriptors such as “willful and wanton”, “reckless”, and “grossly negligent.”

For example, if a person speeds in a school zone right when school is getting out, and they strike a child, the court may grant punitive damages because the conduct is irresponsible to such a degree that it suggests a complete indifference to the well-being of others.

It should be noted that many states have placed caps on punitive damages, especially for certain kinds of cases. Although California does not have such a cap in place, it only allows punitive damages to be awarded in cases where the plaintiff can be punished monetarily.

Ensure your rights are protected

Suffering a serious personal injury is difficult to accept; coming to terms is even more challenging if your injuries were the result of negligence or wrongdoing.

An experienced personal injury lawyer can work vigorously to vindicate your rights in the court of law and help obtain the compensation that you and your family desperately need.