The terms “award” and “damages” are often used synonymously in the legal profession. Punitive damages are one type of award that can be ordered in a civil case. They are meant to teach a lesson or to discourage future actions. Doing so often involves victims receiving amounts that exceed what they would receive if only compensatory damages were available.
Another category of damages are known as compensatory damages. It is helpful to assess the differences when trying to understand the role that punitive damages plays in a justice system. Compensatory damages are awards designed to compensate a victim to make her whole again.
This means that compensatory damages should not be viewed as punishment, but as an amount that is rightfully owed to a person for some harm. For example, an automobile accident may result in a person ordered to pay compensatory damages. These could include the cost for the value of the victim’s automobile and her medical bills. The victim generally should not profit from compensatory damages. Punitive damages, however, are meant to act in a completely different manner.
In some cases, guilty parties are required to pay hefty punitive damages. This money is not designed solely to compensate the victim. Instead, it is designed to penalize the guilty party and to persuade him not to act in the same manner in the future. In some instances, the victim may only receive a portion of the money that is ordered to be paid. It is common, however, for victims who receive these types of damages to receive sums in excess of the amount of their provable claims.
Punitive damages are awarded in civil lawsuits. This causes some people to criticize their application, because normally civil courts are not established to issue punishment. It has been argued, however, that using such damages to address behavior acts as a protection for society.
In instances, for example, where peoples’ lives have been jeopardized by the actions of medical professionals or ruthless business owners, it is often deemed necessary to discourage the continuance of such practices. Since in many cases, no law has been broken, one of the only means to do this is by financial punishment.
Although punitive damages are not criminal consequences, they are obligatory. A party who is ordered to pay must pay unless the decision is reversed by way of appeal. This category of damages can be awarded in cases with a jury or where only a judge presides.