In most personal injury cases that go to court with a personal injury lawyer, a jury will award damages based on the extent of the injuries, the potential recovery time, and the personal and monetary damages suffered by the injured party.
In a particularly egregious case, such as a case of medical malpractice that should have been prevented – a doctor operates on the wrong patient, performing the wrong surgery, for example – a judge may also award punitive damages on top of other compensation, ordered to be paid by the defendant as a way to punish them for willful or reckless acts.
Punitive damages are usually only awarded in personal injury cases or medical malpractice cases, although there are other instances – certain breaches of contract, for example – that punitive damages come into play.
Traditionally, compensatory damages cover medical bills, property damage, and pain and suffering – in addition to legal bills. Punitive damages are awarded on top of that settlement.
Punitive damages: The 411
Punitive damages, also known as exemplary damages, are in place as a way to deter the defendant from engaging in the same behavior in the future, which is why many cases end up in a courtroom. (Most people who are injured due to the negligence of others are not simply interested in covering the expenses of that injury, but also want to protect those that follow them from experiencing the same horrific results, such as being the victim of a wrong or botched surgery.)
Punitive damages are most often awarded in cases where a jury or a judge finds that compensation for damages does not adequately address the plaintiff’s needs, especially in an instance where the injury was the result of a careless, completely preventable act.
Punitive damages are awarded in only an estimated five percent of all cases.
Cases of punitive damages
Punitive damages are generally awarded in civil cases, especially so when a defendant’s actions are considered malicious, fraudulent or reckless.
Some cases include:
• Product liability. A drug manufacturer may be forced to pay punitive damages if they knowingly sell a product with dangerous side effects while failing to issue a warning to consumers. In 2014, cigarette maker RJ Reynolds was ordered to pay a Florida family $26.5 billion in punitive damages – on top of the $16.9 million already awarded in compensatory damages – because of the death of a 36-year-old man, which family members attributed to 20 years of smoking. The case was tossed in 2019, however the earlier verdict shows how substantial punitive damages can be.
• Gross negligence. If a business has been told to repair faulty wiring, a crumbling roof or rotting steps and someone is injured if those dangers are not fixed, gross negligence on the part of the business can result in punitive damages.
• Willful indifference. In certain cases, religious institutions have been sued for allowing priests or other clergymen to molest children in their care by moving them to a new parish rather than addressing the egregious issue of sexual assault in a religious institution. In 1992, a Minnesota parish became the first to be ordered to pay punitive damages to a victim of sexual assault after the Diocese of Winona moved a priest from parish to parish, where he could continue to come into close, intimate contact with boys, despite the Diocese being aware of his sexual abuse history.