What Are the Different Reasons for Punitive Damages?

Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison

Punitive damages, which are intended to punish the defendant, may be applied for a variety reasons. For example, a judge might award punitive damages when deception or fraud are involved in a civil lawsuit. A judge may also award such damages when a defendant has willfully caused harm. Punitive damage awards typically result in a larger settlement for the plaintiff, but they are considered controversial. Some people see the granting of these damages as providing a windfall for the plaintiff and consider them unfairly close to criminal fines.

Punitive damages can be awarded by a judge in a civil lawsuit.
Punitive damages can be awarded by a judge in a civil lawsuit.

There are many underlying reasons for punitive damages, but they are always intended to further punish a defendant. Judges often award monetary damages for the purpose of compensating a plaintiff for the harm he has suffered. Sometimes, however, a judge decides that a defendant deserves additional punishment for his actions and awards punitive damages as well. This monetary award often serves to dissuade not only the defendant, but also others from similar actions in the future.

Punitive damages could be awarded in a medical malpractice case.
Punitive damages could be awarded in a medical malpractice case.

One of the reasons a judge might award punitive damages is to discourage deception. For example, if a doctor performs a procedure on a patient and harms him, a judge may decide that he was negligent in some way. In addition to the main judgment, the doctor might face punitive damages if he lied to the patient about the risks of the surgery. In this situation, the patient would likely have to prove that the doctor deceived him in order for a judge to award punitive damages.

Punitive damages might come in addition to compensatory damages, an example of which would be paying someone for the damage done in a car accident.
Punitive damages might come in addition to compensatory damages, an example of which would be paying someone for the damage done in a car accident.

Often, a plaintiff sues because of harm the defendant caused by accident. In the event, however, that a judge determines that the defendant willfully caused the harm, he may be liable for more than just compensating the plaintiff for the harm he suffered. In such a case, a judge might award punitive damages in order to punish the defendant and discourage such behavior in the future. Likewise, a judge can also award such damages when a defendant is guilty of fraud in addition to other harmful actions.

Punitive damage laws are controversial. Some people see them as fair in cases in which a defendant has lied, committed fraud, shown extreme negligence, or willfully harmed another. Others see the penalties as unfair and similar to criminal fines. The idea that they are similar to criminal fines may be particularly troubling given the fact that defendants do not have the same rights in civil cases as they do in criminal court.

A judge may award punitive damages if he concludes a defendant has willfully caused harm.
A judge may award punitive damages if he concludes a defendant has willfully caused harm.
Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison

Nicole’s thirst for knowledge inspired her to become a wiseGEEK writer, and she focuses primarily on topics such as homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. When not writing or spending time with her four children, Nicole enjoys reading, camping, and going to the beach.

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