What Are Punitive Damages in a Personal Injury Claim?

Last updated on: August 14, 2020


Accidents unfortunately happen all the time, such as car wrecks and slip and falls.  However, some injuries may also have been caused because the person at fault caused your injuries with extremely reckless behavior or out of malice.

If your injuries may have been caused out of malice or with extremely reckless behavior, you should contact the personal injury attorneys at Zinda Law Group at (800) 863-5312 for a free consultation.  If we don’t win your case, you will not owe us anything.


In most personal injury cases, economic damages such as medical costs and lost wages, as well as non-economic damages such as pain and suffering may be available.  Both economic and non-economic damages are intended to provide compensation for losses you actually suffered as a result of the accident. However, in cases where the person at fault caused your injuries either with extremely reckless behavior or out of malice, punitive damages may also be available in addition to any economic or non-economic damages you may also be entitled to.

Some states may also allow for punitive damages where the other party acted with gross negligence. Thus, depending on the nature of your injuries and the other party’s misconduct leading to these injuries, you may be entitled to compensatory and punitive damages to provide.

Punitive damages generally serve two purposes. First, they are intended to punish the person or entity at fault for the particularly outrageous misconduct that caused your injuries.  Punitive damages may also be available in a personal injury case to prevent or deter others in the future from behaving in the same or similar reckless behavior that led to your injuries.  

The amount of punitive damages a victim receives is generally left to the jury’s discretion, and it generally depends on the severity of the victim’s damages and the egregiousness of the other party’s misconduct. The jury may also consider how much punitive damages will be necessary in order to send a clear message punishing the party at fault while warning the public at large to avoid such misconduct.  Finally, the jury may also consider the other party’s financial condition in order to help determine the amount of punitive damages that will be necessary to deter the party from similar misconduct in the future.

Read More: How to Calculate the Value of a Personal Injury Case 


Punitive damages are most often available in personal injury lawsuits, and such damages will generally only be available upon a showing of serious misconduct by the party at fault.  Furthermore, many states will not even allow an award of punitive damages unless the victim was also awarded compensatory damages, whether economic or non-economic damages.

While the standard may vary from state to state, the behavior that caused your injuries must generally be more serious than ordinary negligence.  One example of ordinary negligence is running a red light. Punitive damages are often only available if the victim is able to prove the other party’s behavior was especially malicious or reckless.  An example of recklessness would be running a red light while driving under the influence.

Further, a victim must generally have a reasonable basis for seeking punitive damages, which means there must be evidence to support that there was indeed misconduct rising to the required level to support a claim for punitive damages.  Many courts may levy monetary sanctions on the victim for seeking punitive damages where there was no reasonable basis for pursuing such a claim.  As a result, you may need an experienced personal injury attorney to ensure that your claim for punitive damages is supported by evidence and a reasonable belief that you are entitled to such damages.


Depending on the state, the injured victim may be required to show the other party’s misconduct was grossly negligent, reckless, malicious, or intentional.  Which of these standards apply may depend not only on the state, but also the specific injury that has been alleged.  Gross negligence will generally require a showing that the conduct was reckless and constituted an indifference or conscious disregard to the other’s safety, life, or rights, thus adding the element of recklessness to the usual standard of ordinary negligence.  

Meanwhile, malicious or intentional misconduct standards will generally require a showing that the party at fault acted in such a way as to intentionally cause the victim’s injuries or otherwise behaved in such a way as they should have known such injuries would likely occur. Finally, many states may also require a victim to meet a higher standard of proof when seeking punitive damages than they were required to meet for compensatory damages.  Often, states may require the victim to meet the higher standard of “clear and convincing evidence,” which is one of the highest standards of proof in a civil case.


Some examples of cases where punitive damages were awarded include:

  • A case where an intoxicated doctor operated on a person
  • A parent repeatedly allowed a young child to operate heavy equipment despite the dangers
  • A case where McDonald’s knew of repeated complaints about their coffee causing severe burns but did nothing to correct the problem
  • A case where Ford knew that their Pinto cars possessed major defects with gas tanks causing the Pintos to explode when involved in a rear-end collision.


Some states may place limits, or caps, on how much an injured party may be entitled to in punitive damages, if any.  In some states, this limit on punitive damages may apply to all cases, while in others, the caps on punitive damages may only apply for specific injuries, such as those caused by medical malpractice. Many states also specifically prohibit punitive damages from being awarded in some cases.  For instance, punitive damages may not be available in some states if an injured party is pursuing a claim for medical malpractice against a doctor employed by the state in a state-run hospital. Finally, the Constitution requires that punitive damages generally not be excessive or disproportionate to the actual harm that was caused. Thus, a case with very few actual economic or non-economic damages may not support a very large award of punitive damages.


In many states, punitive damages may be treated differently than compensatory damages. Compensatory damages are intended to make the victim whole again after suffering an injury. However, punitive damages are generally intended to punish the wrongdoer or prevent future injuries.  Because of the purpose of serving a greater societal good of deterring future bad behavior, many states will also share in the victim’s award of punitive damages. Depending on the state, this sharing may be accomplished by taxing a punitive award or by requiring that a certain percentage of any punitive damages award be paid directly to a specific state agency.


Personal injury cases are often complicated, and seeking punitive damages may make the case even more complicated.  Punitive damages may often be difficult to obtain, even in states that allow courts to award any such damages.  As a result, working with an experienced personal injury lawyer may often be critical to successfully pursuing a claim for punitive damages.  Aside from allowing you to focus on recovering from your injuries, an attorney may help you determine the best way to proceed with your case, gather evidence to support your claim for punitive damages, and help you pursue any punitive damages you may be entitled to as a result of the other party’s misconduct.

As tort reform and other changes to state law have made personal injury lawsuits more difficult, it has likewise become more difficult to pursue punitive damages in many states.  An experienced personal injury lawyer may help you understand whether punitive damages are warranted in your specific case.  If so, your attorney may then use the available evidence support for seeking punitive damages to strengthen your position when your attorney negotiates with the other party’s attorney or insurer.

Learn More: Why Hiring a Lawyer Will Help Your Case


At Zinda Law Group, our personal injury lawyers may assist you with your personal injury claim.  Our attorneys may also be able to help you pursue an additional claim for punitive damages if the at-fault party’s behavior was especially reckless or malicious.  Our team may help you navigate the complex nature of a personal injury case and the even more complex nature of pursuing punitive damages, given the higher standard of proof and evidence required to meet this standard.  We help our clients pursue the maximum compensation they may be entitled to after being injured because of the misconduct of others.

Call (800) 863-5312 today for a free consultation with one of our experienced personal injury lawyers experienced in pursuing punitive damages for clients.  You will not pay anything unless we can win your personal injury case.

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