What are Punitive Damages?

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Lisa Allen

Punitive damages are imposed to punish the defendant for unusually reckless or grossly malicious actions. This will deter dangerous behavior from happening in the future.

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Cases That Award Punitive Damages

It’s common for class action lawsuits to award punitive damages because the defendant, usually a corporation, acted recklessly and without regard for the well-being of others. Drunk driving cases also tend to see punitive damage awards for the same reason.

A woman in Chicago sued Willowbrook, Illinois medical tool sterilization company Sterigenics for exposure to ethylene oxide gas that gave her cancer. The court awarded her $363 million. In an interview, the attorney said there were other victims of similar cases, and this verdict would set the tone for them moving forward. 

Punitive vs. Compensatory Damages

Economic damages seek to reimburse someone for tangible costs associated with an accident. Non-economic damages seek to compensate someone for the effect the accident has and will continue to have on their life. These compensatory damages seek to compensate someone for both tangible and intangible losses.

Punitive damages do not compensate the victim for losses, but punish the guilty party for their egregious behavior. These types of damages are purely for punishment and not to make the victim economically whole again.

How to Prove Punitive Damages

Most often, the more severe the accident, the greater the case for punitive damages. You have to prove that the defendant’s actions were so negligent, reckless, or malicious that any reasonable person wouldn’t act the way they did.

This was certainly true when a jury in Texas awarded the family of a burn victim $150 billion. The boy died on his eighth birthday from a rare form of skin cancer. The family contended that that burning caused his cancer.

Another example happened in the Kansas City area in the case of pharmacist Robert Courtney, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2002 for diluting medications used to treat cancer and other seriously ill patients. Courtney then pocketed the profits.

A jury ordered Courtney to pay ovarian cancer survivor Georgia Hayes $30.1 million in compensatory damages and $300 million in punitive damages. Eli Lilly and Bristol-Myers Squibb agreed to pay $71 million in a confidential deal with the plaintiffs, and Courtney’s insurance company and his two pharmacies agreed to pay $35 million.

Malicious or Recklessly Negligent Actions

Malicious actions refer to when someone does something on purpose to cause pain and suffering for no good reason. This was true in the cases referenced above, in which both defendants committed hateful actions that resulted in the death of others.

Negligent actions happen when someone unintentionally causes pain and suffering with their actions. Punitive damages are awarded under excessive negligence, where any reasonable person would know not to do those actions. This is common in medical malpractice cases.

An example is the 2016 case of 32-year old Jonathan Buckelew, who suffered a stroke after collapsing at a chiropractor’s office during a neck treatment in Roswell, Georgia. The court awarded a $75 million verdict against an ER department physician and a radiologist at North Fulton Regional Hospital.

Severity of the Damages

The severity of punitive damages depends on the severity of the circumstances in question. In the examples listed here, the circumstances and charges were quite substantial.

Some cases are not awarded punitive damages at all, likely because a court determines that the plaintiff did not sufficiently show a good cause for such a verdict. 

How Large Are Your Damages?

The largest punitive damage awards have been upwards of $100 billion. These awards are for extraordinary cases, such as the $206 billion tobacco settlement of 1998.

The more common amount you’re awarded may be smaller depending on your case. Most of the time, punitive damages do not exceed four times the amount of compensatory awards in any given case.  

How to Calculate Punitive Damages

Remember that the reason for punitive damages is to punish the defendant for their actions. Thus, one of the most important factors a court considers for these damages is the conduct of the defendant. Laws on damage amounts vary by state, and some have no cap for damage amounts, except for medical malpractice.

Awarding Punitive Damages

Punitive damages occur where the court sees a need to punish a defendant for their reckless actions. Any case may fit in this criteria if the defendant’s actions were that egregious. You may find punitive damages in the examples below:

  • Drunk driving cases
  • Medical malpractice
  • Automobile accidents
  • Product liability
  • Negligent employment
  • Sexual harassment

Punitive damages may exist in your case, even if it does not apply to the examples above. That’s why you need a personal injury attorney to analyze your story, ensuring your rights.

Find Out if Punitive Damages Apply to Your Case

Consulting an attorney can help you determine if your case is suitable for punitive damages. The attorneys in our network are knowledgeable about the laws in your state and can help you navigate the system so that you can get the largest award possible. Call 888-927-3080 or complete our short evaluation form below.

Lisa Allen

Lisa Allen is a writer and editor who lives in suburban Kansas City. She holds MFAs in Creative Nonfiction and Poetry, both from the Solstice Low-Residency Program in Creative Writing at Pine Manor College. Prior to becoming a writer, Lisa worked as a paralegal, where she specialized in real estate in and around Chicago.