What are Punitive Damages?

The typical tort damages are purely compensatory. They may be burdensome to the defendants, even to the point of bankruptcy, but the measure of damages is the plaintiff’s loss. In extreme cases, however, a different kind of damage is awarded with the sole purpose of punishing the defendant for doing wrong. These are called punitive damages or exemplary damages.

As a matter of law and practice, punitive damages are awarded in only a very small number of cases. The law on punitive damages varies from State to State, but everywhere something more than ordinary negligence or even a typical intentional tort is required before such damages can be awarded. The tests are stated in terms such as whether the defendant’s conduct “shocks the conscious” is “outrageous” or demonstrates “a reckless indifference” or “willful and wanton disregard” for the safety of the plaintiff. Because of the narrowness of the standard, punitive damages are awarded only one or two percent of the tort cases which go to judgment.

Punitive damages, especially large amounts of punitive damages are most often awarded in commercial cases. For example, asbestos manufacturers concealed the harmful effect of asbestos for decades were held accountable through punitive damages in several cases. A Jury awarded 10 million in punitive damages to a husband whose wife died of toxic shock syndrome, because Playtex deliberately disregarded studies and medical reports linking super absorbent tampons and the symptom at a time when other tampon manufacturers responded to the information by modifying or withdrawing from the market their high absorbency tampons; the Trial Judgment reduced the award to 1.35 million and the reduced award was held on appeal.

The law has different means of punishing wrongdoers; the criminal process is the most obvious. Administrative penalties serve a punitive function such as when the motor vehicle bureau suspends a driver’s license or the securities in exchange commission suspends a stock broker’s license. Both private and civil litigation also serves public values, and plaintiffs who seek punitive damages become private prosecutors of the public good. The dangerous and wrongful behavior of defendants who intentionally manufacturer dangerous products might not fit within a definition of criminal conduct or come to the attention of a public prosecutor. Punitive damages punish just as criminal penalties do, and the award of damages is a reward and incentive to the injured plaintiff to serve the public good in this way.

The second purpose is to enhance the deterrent effect of tort law. In some cases, the defendant’s conduct is so outrageous that the award of compensatory damages seems insufficient to deter it. In other cases, compensatory damages are inadequate because all of the injured victims will not sue or recover. In both situations, punitive damages reduce a defendant’s incentive to engage in wrongful conduct, acting as a big stick that requires a potential wrongdoer to think twice about the consequences of his or her actions.

If you or a loved one was injured by the reckless or intentional act of a person or manufacturer you could also receive punitive damages for your injuries. When you contact David K. Kremin & Associates, a lawyer will discuss with you the possibility of adding a punitive damage count to your lawsuit for your injuries.


Please contact us for a free consultation at 1(800) ASK-A-LAWYER or 1(800) 275-2529. We promise you will talk to a lawyer with 20-30 years of experience, and there is never a fee unless we collect for you.