When an individual suffers from injuries at the hands of others (because of someone else’s negligence or malpractice), he/she may find himself/herself in the middle of a civil law suit.  After hearing the evidence, and finding in favor of the injured individual, the jury or judge may award damages to the injured individual.  Damages are often categorized as compensatory damages or punitive damages.  Generally, if both types of damages are awarded, they are awarded at the same time; however, they served two different purposes.  For the most part, compensatory damages are awarded to cover actual damages suffered by the injured person, such as lost wages, medical expenses, etc.  In contrast, punitive damages are intended to serve as a deterrent, in other words, serving as a message to the defendant to refrain from behaving in this manner in the future.

Rather than being awarded to compensate the plaintiff, punitive damages aim to deter the defendant and others who would pursue a course of injurious action such as the one the defendant took, from taking such an action. They are awarded in certain cases in which compensatory damages are not deemed a sufficient remedy. Such cases tend to involve aggravating circumstances in which the defendant acted maliciously, intentionally, or with total disregard for the interests and rights of the plaintiff.   Because punitive damages, unlike compensatory damages, are not limited to the actual damages suffered by the plaintiff, they traditionally (when awarded) have far exceeded the value of the compensatory damages.

Some highly publicized multi-million dollar verdicts and the resulting common perception that punitive damage awards tend to be excessive have fueled the “tort reform” debate. The insurance industry has lobbied to impose statutory maximums or “caps” on punitive damages, but several state courts have declared such caps unconstitutional. But in response to some verdicts in which high punitive damages were awarded, the U.S. Supreme Court made several decisions that limited such awards based on the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

In BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, for instance, the Court ruled that punitive damages have to be determined based on the degree of the reprehensibility of the conduct, any civil or criminal penalties applicable to the conduct, and the ratio of punitive damages to compensatory damages. In State Farm Auto Insurance v. Campbell, the Court then decided that punitive damages could only be based on the acts of the defendants that harmed the plaintiffs.

If you feel you have been wrongfully injured by another person, you need to contact an experienced personal injury attorney and have your case evaluated.