In his essay entitled “On Liberty”, English philosopher, political economist, Member of Parliament (MP), and civil servant John Stuart Mill said, “A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case, he is justly accountable to them [through punitive damages] for the injury.”
Today, we’re going to define punitive damages, the role they play in a personal injury lawsuit, and precisely how a jury might calculate them in your personal injury case.
What are punitive damages?
The main purpose of a personal injury lawsuit is to return the injured party to the position they were in before an injury.
Designed to compensate the plaintiff for the injuries that the defendant caused, most personal injury cases focus on compensatory damages.
However, sometimes the defendant’s behavior is so extreme that the court also rules to punish the defendant and deter others from behaving similarly—which is where punitive damages come into play.
Punitive damages are money damages awarded to a plaintiff in addition to and apart from compensatory damages.
What purpose do they serve?
Punitive damages are a distinct type of damage available in a few specific circumstances—they serve two important functions:
- Punish behavior. To punish particularly egregious behavior by the defendant.
- Set an example. To dissuade the defendant from behaving that way in the future—and to deter others from engaging in similar conduct.
Financial loss is an effective means to prevent repeat offenses from the defendant, but others won’t really take notice unless they are serious amounts—which is why punitive damages can be ten times as much as the initial damages awarded.
How are punitive damages calculated in a personal injury case?
Punitive damages are not fixed by law–the judge or jury may award at its discretion whatever sum is believed necessary to redress the wrong or deter similar conduct in the future.
Litigation lawyers can help you seek punitive damages if the situation warrants it.
To determine the amount to award, the Book of Approved Jury Instructions (BAJI) states that the jury should consider:
- The reprehensibility of the conduct of the defendant;
- The defendant’s financial condition; and,
- The relationship to actual damages.
If awarded by the courts, the plaintiff in a case is supposed to receive punitive damages–however, they are meant to serve as a punishment to the defendant, rather than an award to the plaintiff.
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