What Are Punitive Damages in a Lawsuit?

When you discuss the types of damages potentially available in a personal injury lawsuit with your personal injury attorney in West Virginia, you’ll hear the following two categories: compensatory and punitive. Compensatory damages reimburse plaintiffs, or injured parties, for everything they lost due to the other party’s actions. This award covers both economic and non-economic damages, including medical bills, property damages, lost wages, and pain and suffering. Punitive damages are additional sums you may or may not qualify to recover depending on your case.

The Definition of Punitive Damages

Rather than giving you back what you lost in a personal injury accident, punitive damages aim to punish the defendant. Punitive damages are punishment damages the courts typically award when it finds the defendant’s behavior especially harmful. Examples may include a surgeon operating on the wrong patient or a drunk driver striking and killing someone. Punitive damages give a plaintiff an additional sum of monetary recovery on top of compensatory damages.

Awarding punitive damages in a personal injury lawsuit achieves a few different goals. First, it punishes the defendant for his/her actions. Second, it deters others from committing the same or similar acts of negligence in the future. Third, it provides additional money damages if a judge doesn’t believe a compensatory award is enough. Punitive damages are most common in cases involving egregious wrongdoings on the part of the defendant and catastrophic or permanent injuries (or wrongful death) on the part of the plaintiff.

How the Courts Decide on Punitive Damage Awards

Not all lawsuits will result in punitive damages for the plaintiff. It is up to the court’s discretion whether a defendant’s actions were enough to warrant the need for punishment in the form of additional monetary damages. Most civil courts will only assign punitive damages in a tort claim if the plaintiff can prove that the defendant’s actions showed a wanton disregard for the safety of others, gross negligence, recklessness, malice, deceit, willful misconduct, or intent to harm. In West Virginia, the courts require the following elements:

  • Clear and convincing evidence of the defendant’s fault for damages
  • Proof that the defendant’s actions directly harmed the plaintiff
  • Proof of the defendant’s actual malice toward the plaintiff in the incident or a “conscious, reckless, and outrageous indifference to others’ health, safety, and welfare”
  • Awards of other types of damages (the courts never award punitive damages alone)

Keep in mind, however, that these are general guidelines for behaviors the courts find especially harmful in a defendant. A judge can assign punitive damages whenever he or she so desires in a personal injury claim. If a plaintiff and his/her attorney can prove the value of awarding punitive damages, it can increase the odds of obtaining this type of recovery. Some states require proof to recover punitive damages. In general, the courts will not award punitive damages for breach of contract claims – only in those involving physical or emotional injuries.

Does West Virginia Place a Cap on Punitive Damages?

Punitive damage awards can total into the hundreds of thousands of dollars depending on the circumstances of the case. They are proportionate to the amount of compensatory damages. The more severe your injuries and/or egregious the defendant’s actions, the more money your claim will be worth. Most states, however, including West Virginia, place caps on the amount a person can receive in punitive damages.

West Virginia law places a cap, or limit, on punitive damages of no more than $500,000, or four times the amount of compensatory damages (whichever is greater). Hiring an experienced trial attorney can help you maximize your punitive recovery by establishing proof that you qualify for this type of damage. An attorney can help you gather and present evidence against a malicious or reckless defendant.