Generally speaking, there are two types of awards that may be available to you if you are the plaintiff in a personal injury lawsuit: compensatory damages and punitive damages. Compensatory damages seek to restore what you lost as a result of the accident. Therefore, they are always available to accident victims. Punitive damages are only available in the case of willful or wanton misconduct by the other party or parties.
Purposes of Punitive Damages
Awarding punitive damages to a plaintiff in a personal injury case is intended as a form of punishment for the defendant. A personal injury lawsuit is a civil matter with no possibility of jail time. By imposing punitive damages, the court affirms that justice would be best served by imposing a penalty on the defendant. This way, the defendant literally pays a price for the alleged misdeeds.
Punitive damages are also intended as a deterrent from future misconduct, either by the defendant or by others who may be tempted to engage in similar behavior. It sends the message that this kind of conduct is unacceptable by anyone, and those who attempt it will face consequences.
Availability of Punitive Damages
Unlike compensatory damages, punitive damages are not available in cases of simple negligence. In other words, if the defendant made a thoughtless error without realizing that it could cause harm, you cannot seek punitive damages, although compensatory damages are still available. You can only seek punitive damages if you can produce evidence that the defendant knew that the actions were both unlawful and likely to cause harm to others yet proceeded anyway.
Limits to Punitive Damages
Even if you are eligible to receive punitive damages, the amounts you can receive vary based on what type of case you have and what jurisdiction you live in. Some states impose caps on punitive damages. This means that even if a jury awards you a multimillion-dollar award, you cannot receive anything in excess of the cap imposed by state law. It is also common for state laws to impose punitive damage caps only on certain types of cases that are more likely to result in large award amounts. For example, some states impose a cap on punitive damages resulting from medical malpractice suits.
Apart from serving as a punishment and a deterrent, punitive damages are intended to benefit society. However, it is the plaintiff who stands to benefit most directly. To find out about punitive damages and whether they apply in your case, contact our office today for more information.