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When can you get punitive damages in a lawsuit?

If you've filed a personal injury lawsuit, you may have heard about different types of damages that you can ask the court to award you.

While most personal injury lawsuits focus on compensatory damages -- which are designed to compensate victims for their actual economic losses plus their pain and suffering (noneconomic losses) -- some cases are permitted punitive damages as well. These aren't ordinary, but they do happen.

Here's what you should know about punitive damages:

What are punitive damages?

Punitive damages are only available in civil lawsuits, but they are essentially equal to fines in a criminal court.

Punitive damages ultimately benefit the victim of an injury (or the victim's family), but the punitive damages really serve one purpose: They punish a defendant. By punishing the defendant, the goal is to discourage anyone from doing something remotely similar. It's a form of societal justice that sends a message to others about what behavior is considered unacceptable.

When can you ask for punitive damages?

In general, you can only get punitive damages when a defendant's behavior is far beyond the type of simple negligence that causes an accident. It has to be conduct that is either malicious, extremely reckless or intentional.

For example, if a company exposes its workers to a toxic chemical that it didn't properly check for safety, that's a negligent mistake. If the company knew the chemical was toxic but purposefully hid the information from workers and investigators, allowing needless suffering to further their own profits, that's the sort of reckless or purposeful action that could result in punitive damages. Society as a whole would have an interest in seeing that other companies never tried to do the same thing -- so the punitive damages could be extreme.

How are punitive damages determined?

There's really no specific formula that is used. Punitive damages are designed to be weighty because of their nature. However, it isn't uncommon for punitive damages to be reduced on appeal -- so it is difficult to determine from an initial verdict exactly how much will ultimately be paid to the victims.

Source: lawbrain.com, "Punitive Damages," accessed Feb. 27, 2018

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