You may have heard the phrase "punitive damages" before but don't know exactly what it means. In a personal injury case injuries are usually compensated according to their amount of damages, in what is known as compensatory or actual damages. But sometimes these are not the only damages available to a plaintiff, who might be able to receive exemplary damages. These punitive damages are available to punish the defendant and deter them from engaging in similar conduct. They are only awarded in civil cases but are similar to criminal penalties and serve as a punishment justified by the conduct and nature of the injuries. This usually reserved for cases beyond simple negligence and moves into conduct that was malicious, fraudulent, or otherwise more deserving of punishment.
In some states, the actions for which punitive damages may be awarded are set by statute. For example, in Alabama, punitive damages are only awarded for certain wrongful death actions or tort actions "where it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant consciously or deliberately engaged in oppression, fraud, wantonness, or malice with regard to the plaintiff".
In most cases, the decision to award punitive damages and the amount of those damages may be at the discretion of the judge or jury in a case. However, punitive damage awards can be appealed if too excessive and may be overturned. Although there is no bright-line limit to punitive damages awards, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that "few awards exceeding a single-digit ratio between punitive and compensatory damages" will be upheld. This means in cases where the punitive damages are 10 or more times the compensatory damages-such as the case of a Florida widow who was awarded $7.3 million in compensatory damages and $23.6 billion in punitive damages against a tobacco company for the death of her husband-the award will likely be reduced on appeal.
If you have suffered a personal injury and believe the act was intentional or otherwise deserving of a punitive damage award, contact The Kyle Law Firm so we can work to get you the right compensation and punish those who have contributed to your accident and suffering.