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What Are Punitive Damages and How Does It Affect My Case?

There are two main types of damages available in most personal injury lawsuits: compensatory and punitive. The goal of compensatory damages is to compensate a victim for his or her accident-related damages and losses. Compensatory damages can reimburse a claimant for lost wages, medical expenses, property damages, and pain and suffering. Punitive damages, on the other hand, punish the defendant for his or her wrongdoing. Contact an experienced injury attorney and learn about how punitive damages might affect your case in San Francisco.

Punitive Damages vs. Compensatory Damages

Punitive damages

Aim to penalize the defendant and to deter others from similar acts of negligence or violence. Most personal injury cases do not involve punitive damage awards. Almost all cases, though, result in compensatory damages. The possibility of compensatory damages is often the reason a victim brings a personal injury claim. Punitive damages, also called exemplary damages, are additional monetary awards a personal injury claimant might receive on top of general and special compensatory damages. The law does not require a judge to fulfill a punitive damages request.

Compensatory damages

Aim to reimburse an accident victim for economic and non-economic losses. It may take an attorney to help you understand the full value of your claim. Typically, the amount you could receive in “general” damages, or non-economic ones, depends on the ability of your attorney. You will need to demonstrate the impact the accident had on your emotional and mental well-being. Punitive damages, however, come down to whether a judge believes compensatory damages are adequate restitution for a victim.

Will Your Case Involve Punitive Damages?

Not all plaintiffs will receive punitive damages in personal injury claims. Only cases in which the judge wants to teach a lesson to others who may be considering taking similar actions, or if the judge wants to deter the defendant from making the same mistakes in the future, will he or she order punitive damages.

Most commonly, cases involving any of the following may receive this type of award:

  • Gross negligence
  • Outrageous carelessness
  • Recklessness, such as drunk driving
  • Particularly egregious acts
  • Malicious motives
  • Intent to harm or kill
  • Acts of violence
  • Many different plaintiffs ( e.g., class actions)
  • Environmental torts

The point of a personal injury lawsuit is to attempt to make the injured victim “whole” after a negligence-related accident. A judge may see fit to order additional punitive damages when compensatory damages aren’t an adequate remedy for an injured plaintiff. The same is true if the judge wishes to inflict retribution on a defendant for egregious acts. To receive punitive damages, you must show a reasonable basis for requiring this award.

How Much Could You Receive in Punitive Damages?

There is currently no cap on punitive damages in California. This means a judge can make the award for as much as he or she deems appropriate for the situation. A judge will listen to both sides of the case, take into account how severely injured the accident left the victim, and hear the plaintiff’s basis for seeking punitive damages. If a judge decides the plaintiff does require additional restitution, the amount will depend on what is “relatively proportionate” to the wrongdoing and the compensatory damage award.

In the past, judges in California have ranged greatly in how much they’ve awarded plaintiffs in punitive damages. A consultation with a San Francisco accident lawyer is the only way to get an accurate answer for what your case might be worth. In most jurisdictions, however, punitive damage awards cannot exceed four times the amount of compensatory damage awards. An attorney can help you understand whether to expect a punitive damage award for your personal injury case. If so, you might be eligible for significantly more compensation than compensatory damages alone.