Punitive damages are a monetary amount that is awarded to plaintiffs in personal injury and other legal cases. The purpose of imposing punitive damages on the defendant is to punish them for the injuries or wrongdoing they intentionally inflicted on another party. In order for punitive damages to be considered, the defendant in a case must have exhibited behavior that showed complete disregard for the health and well-being of the other party which resulted in the plaintiff’s injuries. The degree to which punitive damages can be awarded is based primarily on how morally reprehensible the act which was committed by the defendant was.
The amount of punitive damages awarded to a plaintiff is determined by the judge of the civil case and may be subject to capped amounts, depending on the state where the case is decided. The typical capped amount for punitive damages in a civil case is two to three times the amount of actual damages. Also, due to growing complaints about the excess amounts of some punitive damages, most judges will only consider awarding them in cases of fraud or gross negligence. Proponents of punitive damages point to the effect it has on deterring more people from committing a similar crime or act of negligence in the future in response to any criticism leveled against the awarding of punitive damages.
When a person is intentionally injured by another party, the law allows for him or her to sue for reimbursement of medical costs, the loss of present and future wages and physical and emotional pain and suffering. If punitive damages are rewarded, the deciding judge will factor in how much money the plaintiff will need to resume their lives to the degree it is possible before the injury sustained from the defendant occurred. Punitive damages are intended to supplement compensatory damages which may be insufficient for the plaintiff’s needs.
A good example of punitive damages at work is the fictional case of an auto manufacturer who knew about the potential of the brakes in the cars the company designed to suddenly stop working, but produced the cars anyway with no warning given to its future drivers. A driver purchases a car from this company and six months later has a fatal accident. If there have been several complaints about this problem from other drivers, the family of the driver who was killed would become aware that there was a known issue with the car’s brakes and could file suit against the auto manufacturer.
The family of the driver who was fatally injured might be awarded actual damages to cover the medical and burial costs of their loved one. However, to punish the auto manufacturer and to compensate the family for loss of the companionship of a loved one, the civil judge may also impose significant punitive damages. The amount would be intended to be severe enough for the manufacturer to correct the defective brakes so that no other family suffers the loss of a loved one due to their negligence.