Most people know very little about how a personal injury lawsuit works. After all, most of us never expect to be in the kind of situation where filing a personal injury lawsuit is even an option. If you do find yourself in this situation, you probably have a lot of questions. You may have heard the term “punitive damages.” What are punitive damages? Are they relevant to a personal injury case? This guide will answer these questions and provide you with all the information you need.

First, consider what damages are in general. The term damages refer to the claims in a lawsuit. Essentially, damages are the things that the defendant must compensate the plaintiff for if the plaintiff wins the case. There are three types of damages, of which punitive damages are only one. The three types of damages are:

  • Special compensatory damages
  • General compensatory damages
  • Punitive damages

Punitive damages are actually the most unusual and non-tradition type of damages, so it may be easier to first learn about the other two types of damages. Special compensatory damages refer to all financial losses, such as hospital bills, the purchase of medical equipment, or missed paychecks. Similarly, general compensatory damages refer to all non-financial losses, such as pain and suffering, emotional turmoil, disfigurement, or loss of ability. Because general compensatory damages do not have a financial value by their nature, the judge will decide how much the defendant must pay to compensate for them.

Punitive Damages
So what are punitive damages? They are the one kind of damages that do not serve as a form of compensation. Instead, punitive damages are meant to punish the defendant for any wrongdoings. Punitive damages can only be assigned by the judge and they are only assigned when the judge thinks the compensation from the other types of damages is not enough of a punishment.

Most of the time, personal injury lawsuits are the result of an accident. The defendant in these cases rarely intentionally caused harm. For this reason, punitive damages are rarely assigned in personal injury cases. It is simply unnecessary to assign extra punishment to someone who accidentally brought harm upon someone. However, if the injury was caused intentionally or caused by especially irresponsible behavior, the judge may deem extra punishment necessary. 

For example, punitive damages are very common in personal injury cases resulting from drunk driving. That is extremely reckless and dangerous behavior that deserves punishment. A personal injury attorney in Washington, DC can tell you if you should expect punitive damages in your case.

​Thanks to ​ The Law Firm of Frederick J. Brynn, P.C. for their insight into personal injury claims and punitive damages.