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What, exactly, are punitive damages?

Posted by John Harris on Sat, Dec 04, 2010 @ 12:10 PM

Compensatory damages may include reimbursement for property damage, medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering, and any other actual loss. Punitive damages are rarely available in an automobile accident cases unless the accident is a result of a drunk driver. Compensatory damages are to reimburse an injured person for property damage, medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering.

What, exactly, are punitive damages?

To understand punitive damages, let’s start with compensatory damages. Usually a jury will determine compensatory damages before they determine punitive damages. The purpose of compensatory damages is to reimburse up with the injured party in the position they would have been if they had not been injured. Compensatory damages may include reimbursement for property damage, medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering, and any other actual loss.

So what, exactly, are punitive damages? If the jury determines that a defendant’s conduct was way beyond negligence or simply recklessness and if jurors believe that evidence shows that the behavior was willful, wanton, or intentionally malicious, a judge may permit them to award punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages. Punitive damages are imposed both to punish the defendant for egregious, often near-criminal, actions and to deter the defendant, and others, from acting similarly in the future. Punitive damages are sometimes called exemplary damages. Their purpose being to make an example of the kind of conduct that will not be tolerated.

People injured through no fault of their own may receive punitive damages in cases of outrageous misconduct involving civil rights, employment, environmental damage, fraud, health care, insurance, intentional acts, nuisance, personal injury, premises liability, product liability, securities, sexual harassment, and workplace safety.

Many states and special interests want to limit or eliminate punitive damages in legal cases. Reckless, malicious, or irresponsible conduct would be rewarded, not punished. In Virginia, the politicians have Punitive damages at $350,000. The danger here is that some irresponsible corporations would consider $350,000 as simply a cost of doing business in some cases. I suspect there are corporations out there, that would consider dumping nuclear waste in your backyard if they could do so for the mirror $350,000 punishment.

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