When Are Courts More Likely To Award Punitive Damages?

Law Articles

Most people who win their personal injury cases are only awarded compensatory damages. This is reimbursement for the costs you incurred and losses you sustained as a result of the defendant's actions, such as medical expenses, property damage, and lost wages. Sometimes, though, the court will also award punitive damages. Here's more information about this type of compensation.

About Punitive Damages

Also called exemplary damages, punitive damages are not really considered a financial award for the plaintiff. Rather, they are a monetary punishment levied against the defendant for his or her conduct. The idea behind punitive damages is to deter the defendant and other individuals and companies from engaging (or continuing to engage) in the same behavior.

Punitive damages are generally only awarded in cases where the defendant's actions were particularly egregious. Typically, the person or company would have had to behave in a way (or engage in acts) that was willfully or wantonly malicious, fraudulent, violent, oppressive, or reckless. A plaintiff may also be awarded punitive damages in cases where the defendant's conduct was grossly negligent.

For example, in the case Alfonso v. Robinson, the plaintiff was awarded punitive damages because the truck driver failed to adhere to the proper safety procedures when his vehicle became disabled on the roadway, despite the fact he had extensive training in this area. The jury, and subsequently the Supreme Court of Virginia, found his conduct rose to the level of willful and wanton disregard required to justify the awarding of punitive damages.

Justifying Punitive Damages

Punitive damages are general not automatically awarded in personal injury cases. You must submit a claim for them as part of your request for compensation for damages. However, you can only put in the request if there is a reasonable basis for seeking them; meaning, there must be evidence the defendant's conduct was outrageous or egregious or you must be able to make a case that person's behavior rose to that level. Failure to adequately make your case can result in monetary sanctions being placed against you by the court.

The court will submit your request through a rigorous evaluation, and four elements must be true before you will be awarded any money:

  • Other types of compensation for damages must have been awarded first, such as compensatory or restitutionary damages
  • The defendant's conduct must have been significantly more egregious than simple negligence or accidental damage
  • The injury must have directly harmed the plaintiff
  • The damages requested must be in reasonable proportion to the compensatory damages; requests for an excessive amount can get your claim denied

The biggest challenge with making a case for punitive damages is that many times a defendant's actions or behavior may appear to be willfully or wantonly malicious or grossly negligent from the viewpoint of the plaintiff but is not actually severe enough to warrant the awarding of punitive damages.

Drunk driving is a clear example of this type of disconnection between the plaintiff's and the court's thoughts on what constitute willful and wanton behavior. A plaintiff may consider a person who causes an accident while driving under the influence to have behaved in a wantonly reckless manner. However, the court may see the situation differently based on the person's blood alcohol level and other factors. For example, the court may consider a person whose BAC was barely over the legal limit to be reckless but not wantonly so, especially if the person appeared to be trying to drive in a safe manner (e.g. driving under the speed limit).

Therefore, it's critical that you carefully comb through the facts of your case with a personal injury attorney to determine if they support a request for punitive damages and to develop the best argument for justifying receiving the money.


When awarding damages, the court will take a few factors into consideration:

  • The reprehensible nature of the defendant's conduct
  • The amount of damages awarded in similar cases
  • How the requested amount of punitive damages compares to the actual harm suffered by the defendant

Additionally, depending on the type of personal injury case you have and where you are litigating it, you may be limited in the amount of punitive damages you can be awarded. For example, there is a cap of $500,000 or 3 times the amount of compensatory damages in Alabama and Florida. So if you won compensatory damages of $10,000, you could only be awarded a maximum of $30,000 in punitive damages in these states.

If you think your case justifies receiving punitive damages, connect with a personal injury attorney for assistance with making a case for it in court.


10 April 2015

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