In the state of California, punitive damages refer to those that are awarded when compensatory damages are inadequate. The court has the option of awarding punitive damages when other types of compensation are not enough.
Punitive damages are typically paid in excess to injuries or damages that are proven in the lawsuit. Because punitive damages often end up giving a plaintiff more than what it would take to pay current and future medical bills, they are only awarded in very special cases. If a defendant’s actions were especially deplorable or illegal, a judge may award punitive damages as a way to “punish” the defendant.
In California, the amount of punitive damages is based on statute. In other states in the nation, punitive damages are based on case law. Most states have applied caps to the amount that can be awarded under this type of damage, while other states have found that such caps are unconstitutional. In Louisiana, Nebraska and Washington, punitive damages are never available under any circumstance.
In states where there are no caps, juries have awarded punitive damages in the millions. Many of these cases have been appealed, with the Supreme Court of the United States limiting those awards. In several cases, the Court has ruled that a 4:1 ratio of punitive to compensatory damages is high enough and that a ratio of 10:1 may be unconstitutional.
Again, punitive damages are a rare award. Most cases do not qualify for this type of compensation. Victims of accidents and other personal injuries should speak to an attorney for guidance as to what type of damages may be awarded in their case.