What Are Punitive Damages?

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In a civil personal injury case, the defendant doesn’t go to jail. If the jury finds in the plaintiff’s favor, the defendant must pay the plaintiff money. Usually, the victim receives compensation for their actual losses and damages.

Sometimes, paying actual damages isn’t enough to achieve justice. When the defendant’s actions are especially offensive and dangerous, they should be punished for their behavior.

The way the Pennsylvania courts accomplish this is through punitive damages. In cases where it’s appropriate, the defendant may have to pay extra as a punishment for their especially bad conduct.

Punitive damages are not awarded in all cases. In fact, they’re not awarded very often. Our injury and accident lawyers explain punitive damages.

What Are Punitive Damages?

Punitive damages are extra damages that a defendant may be ordered to pay in some kinds of civil lawsuits. They are awarded when the defendant acts extremely offensively or dangerously. Punitive damages punish them by creating an additional consequence. They also deter the person and others from acting in a similar way in the future.

By contrast, damages that pay the person for their actual losses are called compensatory damages.

What Is the Law for Punitive Damages in a Pennsylvania Injury Case?

In Pennsylvania, punitive damages may be awarded for outrageous conduct. Conduct is outrageous when the defendant has an evil motive or when they act with reckless indifference to the rights of others.

A punitive damages award is appropriate when the defendant’s actions are malicious, wanton, reckless, willful or oppressive. The finder of fact should consider what the defendant did. They should look at all the circumstances including the motivation of the defendant.

Source: Pikunse v. Kopchinski, 429 Pa. Sup. Ct. 46 (1993); Burke v. Maassen, 904 F.2d 178, 181 (3d Cir. 1990); 40 Pa. Stat. § 1303.505 (for medical malpractice claims)

What Is the Standard of Proof for a Punitive Damages Award?

The standard of proof for a punitive damages award is clear and convincing proof. The jury must find that the plaintiff has clearly proven that the defendant acted in an outrageous way to sustain punitive damages.

The clear and convincing standard is higher than the preponderance of the evidence standard used in most civil cases.

Source: Bargerstock v. WGCAC, 397 Pa Sup. Ct. 403 (1990).

How Often Are Punitive Damages Awarded in Pennsylvania?

Punitive damages are not often awarded in Pennsylvania injury claims. They are rare because they carry a different burden of proof and serve a different purpose in litigation than compensatory damages.

Ultimately, what matters is what can be awarded in your individual case. If the case meets the criteria, you may claim punitive damages in addition to other damages. Our lawyers can evaluate your case to determine if it is appropriate to plead punitive damages.

What is the ratio of punitive damages in Pennsylvania?

The ratio of punitive damages that a person can receive depends on several factors. Within the bounds of the law, the jury determines the appropriate amount. In Pennsylvania, there is a limit of 200% of compensatory damages in medical malpractice claims.

Punitive damages are not available in cases against the Commonwealth or local units of government.

Source: 40 Pa. Stat. § 1303.505

Can Punitive Damages be Awarded for Negligence?

Punitive damages are not awarded for negligence. The defendant’s actions must have been especially egregious and callous to the safety of others. Simple negligence does not meet this standard.

What Are Examples of Cases Where Punitive Damages are Most Often Awarded?

Punitive damages may be awarded in any case that meets the criteria. Here are some types of cases where punitive damages are awarded:

  • Drunk driving
  • Hit and run crashes
  • Defective products
  • Animal attacks
  • Assault and battery

Our lawyers can review your case to determine if punitive damages are likely to be awarded.

What Are Punitive Damages Examples?

Liebeck v. McDonald’s

Perhaps the most known example of punitive damages is the McDonald’s hot coffee case involving Stella Liebeck. The victim ordered coffee at McDonald’s. It was served very hot. It spilled in her hap, causing severe burns. She was hospitalized for eight days and needed two years of medical treatment.

The jury awarded Stella Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages. They agreed that the coffee was served hot enough that it was likely to cause injury. It was served much hotter than any competitor served their coffee. The jury thought that McDonald’s knowingly served coffee that was likely to cause injury. The punitive damages award was in addition to compensatory damages awarded for medical treatment.

Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Company

A crash involving a 1972 Ford Pinto caused the death of one victim and severe injuries to another victim. The victims argued that Ford knowingly put profits above the well-being of passengers when designing the vehicle, particularly the gas tank, trunk and bumper. They said that the design was likely to cause fuel leakage and fires in a crash, and the company chose to forgo a simple fix that could have prevented the harm. The jury agreed and awarded $127.8 million in damages, including punitive damages. The trial court later reduced the punitive damages amount to $3.5 million.

How Our Attorneys Can Help with Punitive Damages in Pennsylvania Injury Claims

Receiving justice in a legal claim means receiving the judgment and compensation that you are entitled to. Seeking punitive damages can be an effective way to hold the defendant accountable for their actions. In fact, it is the way to distinguish between harms that result from simple negligence and egregious behavior that hurts others.

Our attorneys begin by evaluating whether the case is appropriate to claim punitive damages. Based on our training and experience, we give you an honest evaluation of the situation and the likelihood of success in a punitive damages claim. If appropriate, we know what steps need to be taken to assert the claim. Because of the elevated standard for punitive damages, great care must be taken to gather the evidence and prepare arguments. Our lawyers can handle all these tasks as part of our representation.

Consultation for a Case Involving Punitive Damages

Are you wondering how punitive damages may factor into your legal claim? Contact us at Luschas, Naparsteck & Crane, LLP for a consultation regarding your case.

Get in touch with us today to get started with your FREE case review. We’re only a call, click, or short drive away.