What Are Punitive Damages?

If you’ve been injured in an accident due to someone else’s negligence or wrongful acts, you shouldn’t have to suffer the financial consequences.

Consulting with an experienced personal injury lawyer can help you understand your legal options for seeking damages. They can help you recover compensation by holding the party who caused your injuries financially responsible.

Punitive damages are sometimes included in personal injury awards. But they’re not available in every case.

What Kind of Damages Are Available in Personal Injury Cases?

You might already know that if someone causes you to get hurt, you might be able to file a personal injury lawsuit to recover money for your medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering. These are considered compensatory damages and include economic and non-economic damages.

Economic damages help make you financially whole by covering monetary expenses related to your accident – things like medical bills, property damage, and out of pocket expenses.

These are generally easy to calculate because they represent tangible costs. However,  experts are often needed to calculate future expenses accurately.

Non-economic damages are more subjective and cover things like physical pain, emotional trauma, and loss of enjoyment of life activities.

How much an injured victim might receive depends on the specifics of each case. Non-economic damages are particularly personal. 

But sometimes, an accident is the result of conduct so outrageous—or even intentional—that whoever caused your injuries can be ordered to pay you additional damages. 

What Are Punitive Damages?

Unlike compensatory damages, punitive damages (sometimes called exemplary damages) aren’t awarded to compensate the plaintiff for injuries caused by an accident or illness.

Instead, the purpose of punitive damages is to:

  • Punish the defendant
  • Deter the defendant and others from similar conduct in the future

A judge might order punitive damages to send a message that the defendant’s conduct won’t be tolerated.

When Can I Get Punitive Damages in Pennsylvania?

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has held that punitive damages may be awarded only in cases where the defendant’s conduct was:

  • Malicious
  • Wanton
  • Willful
  • Oppressive
  • Exhibited an evil motive
  • Showed reckless indifference to the rights of others

Punitive damages can’t be awarded for ordinary negligence. The conduct of the defendant is just one factor in getting an award of punitive damages.

Standard for Punitive Damages in Pennsylvania

Under Pennsylvania law, punitive damages must:

  • Be reasonably related to the state’s interest in punishing and deterring the bad behavior of the defendant
  • Not be arbitrary

In determining whether punitive damages are permitted, courts will review:

  • The character of the act
  • The nature and extent of the harm caused
  • The wealth of the defendant

For example, in one case, Pennsylvania courts approved punitive damages in a case involving an insurance company that acted in “bad faith” towards a car accident victim by delaying the process and intentionally giving her a lowball offer.

How Much Are Punitive Damages?

It varies. Punitive damages aren’t unlimited. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that an award of excessive punitive damages violates the 14th Amendment Due Process clause.

This sounds somewhat vague. And it is. The Supreme Court has given some guidance, which state courts follow.

In practice, punitive damages are often some multiple of a plaintiff’s compensatory damages. They are likely to be considered reasonable if they aren’t too much higher than the compensatory damages. 

When they are awarded, they don’t decrease or otherwise affect your compensatory damages. They are simply added to the rest of your award.

How Much is Too Much?

Although it has not set a specific rule, the Supreme Court has suggested that a double-digit multiplier is too much. 

But, in the insurance bad faith case mentioned above, Pennsylvania courts found that a $2.8 million award in punitive damages was not excessive when the plaintiff had received roughly a $279,000 compensatory award.

The court determined that an award of punitive damages ten times the amount of compensatory damages was not too much because:

  • The plaintiff’s compensatory award was relatively small
  • The insurance company had massive wealth
  • The insurance company repeatedly treated the victim with reckless indifference

Pennsylvania courts have also recognized that defendants with deep pockets have resources to deter plaintiffs from pursuing their due compensation. They don’t hesitate to penalize those defendants with punitive damages.

Limits in Medical Malpractice Cases

Pennsylvania places limits on the amount of punitive damages awarded in medical negligence lawsuits. Unless the defendant engaged in intentional misconduct, the amount of punitive damages can’t be more than double (200%) the amount of compensatory damages.

If you are awarded punitive damages in a med mal case, 25% must be paid to the Medical Availability and Reduction Error Fund (MCARE).

The MCARE Act involves many complex laws that affect medical malpractice lawsuits. In part, MCARE is a supplemental fund that helps people injured by medical negligence receive compensation.

What Kind of Cases Qualify for Punitive Damages?

If the defendant’s conduct meets the criteria, you can pursue punitive damages in most personal injury cases.

You could potentially seek punitive damages as a result of any of the following:

If you’ve been injured in an accident, a reputable Pennsylvania personal injury lawyer will be able to analyze your case and determine whether you should seek punitive damages.