Punitive Damages

In the civil (non-criminal) justice system, the primary goal is to ensure that the victims of wrongdoing are compensated for the harm that they've suffered, and that the compensation is paid by the wrongdoer. Unlike the criminal justice system, the primary objective of a civil lawsuit is not to punish the wrongdoer, cast moral blame on him or her, or to deter future wrongdoing. There are cases, however, when somebody's conduct is so reprehensible that a civil court will see fit to punish the defendant, by ordering them to pay the plaintiff a sum of money that goes above and beyond compensation for the actual harm caused. These are known as punitive damages.

LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor, , Attorney at Law

It should be noted that in the vast majority of civil lawsuits, punitive damages are not awarded. Instead, when a defendant is found liable in a civil lawsuit, they will only be required to compensate the plaintiff for the harm that the plaintiff can prove they caused.

Punitive damages are only awarded in cases where the defendant's conduct was morally reprehensible. So, if a person behaves carelessly, but without intent to cause harm, and accidentally causes an accident, they will only be required to compensate the victim for the actual harm caused, and will not be made to pay punitive damages. Read more


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However, if the plaintiff suffers the exact same harm as in the example above, but it can be proven that the defendant behaved intentionally or engaged in recklessness that went far beyond simple carelessness, they will be made to pay punitive damages.

Generally, punitive damages are only awarded when it can be shown that the defendant intended to cause the harm that the plaintiff suffered. Cases of fraud, theft, and some cases of trespassing are some of the most common instances in which punitive damages are awarded. It's important to note that, when deciding whether or not to award punitive damages, the severity of the harm suffered by the plaintiff isn't really relevant. Instead, a court will consider the nature of the defendant's conduct.

For that reason, punitive damages sometimes far exceed compensatory damages. To an outside observer, this sometimes appears to be unfair. Courts in the U.S., including the Supreme Court, have recognized that the Constitution places limits on punitive damages.

The U.S. Constitution bars courts from imposing excessive fines. Because punitive damages can be viewed as a type of fine, the Supreme Court has held that excessive punitive damage awards are unconstitutional. The general rule of thumb is that punitive damages should not exceed 10 times the amount of actual damages. However, this is not a strict rule, and courts have rejected punitive damage awards that are smaller than that ratio, and upheld larger ones.

In deciding if a punitive damage award is appropriate, there are several factors a court has to consider. First, it considers the nature of the defendant's conduct. Generally, punitive damages are only awarded if the conduct that caused the harm is intentional. Second, it considers the severity of the harm suffered by the plaintiff. It also has to look at criminal fines that are imposed for conduct that's comparable to the defendant's conduct. Punitive damage awards should be somewhat proportional to these fines.

If you believe that you have suffered a harm that entitles you to punitive damages, you may wish to pursue possible legal remedies. If this is the case, you should consult with a civil litigation attorney as soon as possible. Your attorney will be able to advise you on your legal rights.


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