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When Can You Sue for Punitive Damages?

By Daniel Taylor, Esq. | Last updated on

In a personal injury case, a successful plaintiff is compensated financially according to the amount of his damages by what are called compensatory or actual damages.

But these damages may not be the only type of damages available to a plaintiff in an injury lawsuit. In some cases, a plaintiff may also receive punitive damages -- known in some jurisdictions as exemplary damages -- in addition to an award of compensatory damages.

What are punitive damages and when are they available?

Punitive Damages Intended to Punish Defendant

While compensatory damages are intended to compensate the plaintiff for injuries or damages he may have sustained, punitive damages are meant to punish the defendant as well deter others from engaging in similar conduct.

Although awarded only in civil cases, punitive damages are functionally similar to criminal penalties in cases where the defendant's conduct justifies punitive measures. As such, punitive damages are usually reserved for cases where the defendant's conduct is beyond merely negligent or intentional; the conduct must be reckless, malicious, fraudulent, wanton, outrageous, or otherwise more deserving of punishment in the eyes of the judge or jury.

When Are Punitive Damages Available?

The rules for punitive damages vary by state, with some states refusing to award punitive damages in any case.

In other states, the actions for which punitive damages may be awarded are set by statute. For example, in Alabama, punitive damages may only be 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, excessive punitive damage awards may be overturned. Although there is no bright-line limit to punitive damages awards, the U.S. Supreme Court has said 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 Florida widow who was awarded $7.3 million in compensatory damages and $23.6 billion in punitive damages against tobacco company RJ Reynolds for the death of her husband -- the award will likely be reduced on appeal.

For more information on the different types of damages that may be available to an injury lawsuit plaintiff and how those damages are calculated, visit FindLaw's section on Injury Damages.

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