What are punitive damages?

You do not have to be a lawyer to understand the basics of personal injury law. In fact, of all the different types of law, I truly think that personal injury is the easiest to understand! The ease of understanding is most likely caused by injury being something to which most people can relate. Compare that to topics like constitutionality or intellectual property!

However, there are still concepts important to personal injury lawyers that are not easily understood without some intense research. One topic, punitive damages, is pretty important to know about as an average citizen because it might affect a potential lawsuit you might pursue after being injured by someone.

Luckily for you, I have done a lot of research on personal injury law, broadly, and punitive damages, more specifically:

The purpose of a personal injury case

Because punitive damages are so closely related to personal injury law, it is best to first understand the general purposes of a personal injury lawsuit. In most situations, people sue others for personal injuries in order to earn compensation to cover medical bills, health costs, or other financial damages incurred as a result of an injury.

Some additional financial damages that many people do not initially think of in these situations is something like lost wages or potentially-lost benefits. If a person is unable to work because they are recovering from an injury — or if they are disabled as a result of an injury — then one purpose of a personal injury lawsuit could be to recoup those losses. A person’s financial status ought to never be dramatically worsened because of the negligence or damages caused by another.

Punitive damages explained

On the other hand, as Portner Bond, PLLC discusses on their website, an additional benefit that a judge or plaintiff might pursue in a personal injury lawsuit is punitive damages. These are meant to disincentivize — a nice way to say punish — the extremely negligent behavior that a person engaged in, that caused the victim’s (or plaintiff’s) injuries.

While this might seem harsh, using the judicial system to persuade the public’s actions not only makes sense but is done every day. The main reason people do not speed is not because of safety concerns, but because of the fear of a speeding ticket. So pursuing punitive damages against someone might make it so that the person does not commit the negligent or reckless actions again.

When punitive damages are used

If you still feel that punitive damages are harsh, the silver lining is that only rarely do judges or plaintiffs seek to pursue this form of restitution. Other forms of incentives (like compensation for medical bills) are more commonly used in personal injury cases. But for particularly egregious or reckless behavior, punitive damages are a good means of motivation.