Punitive Damages Explained

The primary goal of a attorney litigating a civil lawsuit involves winning an award that puts the plaintiff in the same financial position he or she enjoyed before the incident in question. For example, an attorney for a plaintiff files a civil lawsuit to recoup the money lost because the negligence of a company that sold a defective product. The defective product caused serious injuries requiring expensive medical care.

Most attorneys refer to civil lawsuit awards as remedies to alleviate the pain and suffering endured by plaintiffs. Another type of financial award is available for plaintiffs, but receiving these types of damages requires much more legal handiwork performed by accomplished licensed attorneys.

An Overview

These damages do not pay for the pain and suffering you experienced by purchasing a defective product of enduring the negligence of another driver. Compensatory damages compensate plaintiffs for injuries or other types of damages from an accident or a defective product. Awards for pain and suffering require proof of medical costs and time lost from work.

These kinds of damages represent the monetary awards given to plaintiffs that punish defendants for reckless behavior and outright premeditation to harm another person. Think of the Florida widow who received more than $7 million in compensatory damages and nearly three times the compensatory damages amount from RJ Reynolds in the famous case that sent the tobacco industry reeling.

States Make the Call

State law usually dictates the legal viability for punitive damages, as well as the rules plaintiffs are required to follow for receiving monetary awards that punish defendants. The rules differ in each state, which creates confusion for plaintiffs who lived in one state for most of their lives and then moved to another state where they filed a civil lawsuit. For example, Alabama specifies the types of cases that permit plaintiffs to seek these kinds of damages. Several states include legal language for civil lawsuits that require plaintiffs to prove clear and convincing evidence that defendants performed premeditated acts of illegal behavior.

Limits on Punitive Damages

Damages in a civil case have the same intent as punishment handed down in a criminal case, with the difference being dollars versus years in prison. Since the Constitution stipulates the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment for federal crimes, it makes sense that the United States Supreme Court has applied the same restrictions on the maximum amount awarded. Although a judge or a jury awards punitive damages, the United States Supreme Court has capped the award to be no more than ten times the amount of compensatory damages.  Anything more than this amount will most likely be questioned or overturned.  The legal reasoning behind the cap is to prevent plaintiffs from making an excessive windfall by winning civil lawsuits.


These kinds of damages can be the core of the controversies that plague civil lawsuits. The primary reason for the discord are the different standards states apply, from the rules that govern the awards to the maximum amount plaintiffs can receive for enduring gross recklessness. The disparity in state laws has given large corporations the flexibility to establish home offices in states that have the most favorable punitive rules.

If you feel you are entitled to compensation that goes well beyond compensatory damages, contact a licensed attorney who has won punitive damages for his or her clients.

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