What Are Punitive Damages?

what are punitive damages

It’s hard to know what’s in your future, even when your loved ones are happy and healthy. It becomes even harder to plan for the future when a personal injury happens to your family. Now you wonder: how will you pay bills while you can’t work? How will you cover newfound medical costs? How will you afford a wheelchair ramp addition to your front door, or a new shower in your bathroom to accommodate a new disability? There are a few kinds of damages that you may be eligible to receive after a personal injury accident. Typically, compensatory damages are sought and won via a personal injury lawsuit. Punitive damages are another form that are often awarded in addition to compensatory damages. If applicable, punitive damages may maximize your compensation at the completion of your case.

A personal injury caused by another party’s negligence can change everything. A Yuma personal injury attorney from Lerner and Rowe may be able to help you and your family seek compensation for damages to cover day-to-day expenses and medical costs after an accident

Reach out to Lerner and Rowe today by calling 928-344-6200. One of our knowledgeable legal representatives can assist you 24/7 to help set up a free consultation to learn about your eligibility for seeking compensatory and/or punitive damages. 

The Difference Between Punitive and Compensatory Damages

So, what is the difference between punitive and compensatory damages? To start, there are two kinds of compensatory damages. 

  1. The first is economic damages. These are also known as special damages. Economic damages directly reimburse or compensate the victim of an accident (plaintiff) for concrete expenses. For instance, if you lost weeks of work due to an injury, your economic damages may cover those lost wages. Or, if your teenage daughter had to take a helicopter ride to the hospital in the city after her rural car crash, you may be reimbursed for the associated medical bills. These damages are easiest to calculate compared to other types of damages. 
  1. The second kind of compensatory damages are non-economic, or general damages. General damages are much more difficult to calculate. This is because they aim to compensate victims for more abstract harm. Non-economic damages may include a monetary amount to compensate for a hurt reputation after an accident, the loss of a normal life, or the loss of a loved one or provider for the family. It’s important to have a personal injury lawyer to help determine the appropriate financial amount of non-economic damages, since there is no way to put a concrete financial cost on these losses.

While seeking economic and non-economic damages may win you compensation for your injuries, you may not win your maximum amount if you do not also consider punitive damages.

Punitive Damages Further Defined

What are punitive damages? Punitive damages are not very common. In fact, only about five percent of verdicts include them after a case. However, it’s still important not to rule them out until all evidence has been collected and assessed. 

To determine what qualifies for punitive damages, the plaintiff must have proof the defendant was acting with wanton disregard for the safety of others. In other words, there must be evidence that the defendant knew their actions would likely cause harm and that they continued anyway. Any evidence of dangerous conduct, disregard for the law, or maliciousness may result in the application of punitive damages. 

Examples of Punitive Damages

One example of punitive damages awarded in a case is the case of Robinson v. Reynolds. The Robinson family sued RJ Reynolds, a tobacco company, for the death of a family member. Not only did the family win 16.9 million dollars of compensatory damages, they were also awarded 23.6 billion dollars of punitive damages. 

Cases with such large payoffs are not typical. A less extreme example is Chiara v. Dernago. The plaintiff was rear-ended, which gave her severe neck injuries. The defendant, arrested at the scene for driving under the influence, had two twice the legal blood alcohol content levels. Therefore, it was determined he had acted recklessly, and the plaintiff was awarded $70,000 in punitive damages. 

Your personal injury case may be a good case to seek punitive damages. But, this may be difficult to determine on your own. So, reach out to the Yuma personal injury lawyers at Lerner and Rowe. Our award-winning team of attorneys can assist you day or night,  365 days a year, so use our LiveChat feature to connect today. Or, fill out this online form to learn about your next steps. 

Purpose of Punitive Damages

With such large amounts of money awarded for compensatory damages, you may wonder, what is the purpose of punitive damages? There are three main reasons why punitive damages exist.

  1. As the name suggests, punitive damages aim to punish the defendant for their actions. The money can then go to helping the affected families recover.
  1. Punitive damages also aim to set an example. Hopefully, the defendant will change their habits, or avoid similar situations where they may cause harm.
  1. Reducing the likelihood of similar actions happening again is another benefit of punitive damages. Then, if others realize the amount of damage caused by negligent behavior, and how it may affect their lives monetarily and otherwise, they may avoid similar situations.

Above all, the purpose of punitive damages is also to assist those injured in an accident that wasn’t their fault. It also helps encourage the defendant and others not to repeat harmful behavior. So be sure to ask about punitive damages when your Lerner and Rowe personal injury attorney begins to assess your case.

What Determines the Amount Received? 

As your case is assessed, it’s important to know how punitive damages are calculated. There are a number of factors that go into determining an amount. 

First, the level of harm caused by the defendant is determined. Were the victim’s injuries somewhat minor? Are their injuries considered catastrophic? Will they be able to return to their normal life? Was there a death involved? All of this goes into determining the amount of punitive damages.

Your attorney will also determine the amount of property damage caused. If the accident happened on the road, they may look at the total loss of a vehicle, or how many vehicles were affected. 

Next, the defendant’s own wealth and resources are taken into account. If the defendant is very wealthy, it’s likely that they would pay punitive damages in proportion to their assets. Conversely, a defendant with very few assets may not pay as high an amount. 

Limits on Punitive Damages

After seeing all the damage done by someone’s recklessness, it may be tempting to place the highest possible amount of punitive damages onto them. However, there are limits. For instance, any amount that exceeds a 10:1 ratio between compensatory and punitive damages is considered unconstitutional. In other words, the amount of punitive damages can only be ten times the amount of other damages won.

Some states also place a cap on the maximum amount of punitive damages allowed in a personal  injury case. Arizona does not have this limit set, though in general, it abides that a 4:1 ratio is too high.

Most importantly, punitive damages can only be awarded if compensatory damages have already been won. In no case can only punitive damages be given to the plaintiff; they are only an additional amount.

Who Receives Damages?

In most cases, the plaintiff, or the victim pressing charges, will receive all punitive damages. Often, any legal fees come directly out of the amount of compensation won. At Lerner and Rowe, you won’t have to pay any of these legal fees until we win your case. 

Our superior client assistance begins during your completely free initial consultation. Then, we take the time to build a relationship with you to learn the best way to work through your case. From there, we will keep you updated regarding the amount of compensatory and punitive damages that will be sought on your behalf. 

Find a Yuma Personal Injury Attorney Near You

The Arizona statute of limitations sets two years from the date of an accident to the filing of a claim. While it can be a difficult time to handle so much, it’s important to contact a personal injury lawyer sooner rather than later. 

The most valuable service we offer does not have a dollar value—we value all of our clients and dedicate ourselves to help carry the emotional burden of your personal injury case while you focus on recovery. So, don’t wait—call our Yuma personal injury attorneys today to seek the compensation you and your family deserve.

Reach out to our Yuma offices today at (928) 344-6200, fill out an online form, or simply type your message into the  LiveChat box on your screen. Our award winning team is ready to take your call today.

The information on this blog is for general information purposes only. Nothing herein should be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship.