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What Are Punitive Damages and How Are They Awarded?

The purpose of civil lawsuits is to put the plaintiff back in the position he or she was in before the accident. If the other side was at fault and your car was damaged, it should be repaired. If you were injured and lost time from work, your wages should be reimbursed. If you incurred medical expenses, you should be paid for them. The law also allows an award for pain and suffering you may have sustained. These are all known as compensatory damages.

Punitive damages are not meant to give you back something you lost due to the accident. They are meant to punish the defendant for conduct that was especially outrageous. The thinking is that the defendant needs to be punished in addition to the damages he or she pays as compensatory damages. Society as a whole also learns that this type of conduct will not be accepted through publication of punitive damage awards.

Even though punitive damage awards are meant to punish the defendant and benefit society, not the plaintiff, punitive damage awards are paid to the plaintiff in a case. These awards have been characterized as a windfall for plaintiffs because they put the plaintiff in a much better position financially than they were before the accident.

Not surprisingly, punitive damage awards are controversial and vary from state to state. Some states allow juries to award punitive damages in any amount that they feel is appropriate. With the right case, a plaintiff could receive a multimillion-dollar punitive damage award. Other states have severely limited punitive damage awards by limiting the types of cases where they can be awarded or placing statutory caps on how much money a jury or judge can award for punitive damages. For example, lawsuits against medical care providers for malpractice have punitive damage caps in some states. Plaintiffs may also receive punitive damage awards from insurance companies that deal in bad faith with their insureds and fail to treat their insureds fairly under the terms of the applicable insurance policy.

If you have questions regarding the applicability of punitive damages, contact an experienced attorney through