What Are Punitive Damages?

Red law book, law gavel, and and a personal injury file

Punitive damages, also often referred to as exemplary damages, are designed to punish defendants whose behavior in injury cases was grossly negligent or intentional. They are also sometimes used to set an example and prevent others from engaging in similar behavior. Punitive damages are awarded in addition to compensatory damages.

When Does a Court Award Punitive Damages?

Courts in the United States award punitive damages in only about 5% of cases. The courts may apply punitive damages in tort liability cases only when the plaintiff can establish that the defendant who caused the injuries acted intentionally or engaged in especially outrageous behavior that he or she knew or should have known would cause injury or death.

Punitive Damage Examples in Personal Injury Cases

In personal injury cases, the court may award punitive damages if a defendant is found to have engaged in grossly negligent, malicious, intentional, or reckless behavior.

An example of gross negligence could include a case involving an injury resulting from a vehicle accident in which an underaged child was operating a tractor. The victim may recover compensatory damages, but perhaps the child’s parent openly and frequently permitted the child to drive the tractor involved in the accident. In this case, the courts may determine that the child’s parent practiced gross negligence, warranting punitive damages to deter this kind of behavior.

What Is Required for Punitive Damages?

There are a couple of key requirements needed before a court can award punitive damages. Courts must first assess whether the defendant’s actions are considered grossly negligent, intentional, or malicious. They must then examine multiple similar cases to find out if punitive damages were awarded.

The ability to award punitive damages will also depend on the state, as some states are more likely to allow for punitive damages than others.

States and the U.S. Supreme Court have guidelines in place to help calculate punitive damages, but in most cases, punitive damage awards are equal to about four times the total amount of the compensatory damages.

Punitive damages are rarely awarded and hard for plaintiffs to receive, but they could ultimately be awarded if a defendant’s behavior is especially malicious or negligent.