What Are Punitive Damages?

In various types of civil actions, including personal injury lawsuits, there is a litany of available damages. One type of damage is called punitive damages.

Punitive damages are generally awarded to a party who has been injured by acts that were committed with wanton, reckless, willful, and malicious disregard for the rights of others. The goal or the primary function of punitive damages is to punish the wrongdoer and deter others from committing the same kinds of acts.

Unlike compensatory damages, which are designed to compensate the injured party, the primary goal of the punitive damages is punishment and deterrence. An award of compensatory damages is designed to award just compensation that will make the injured party whole, to the extent that is possible to measure his injury in terms of money. See Fisher v. City of Miami,172 So.2d 455 (Fla. 1965). In contrast, punitive damages do not focus on the actual loss or harm inflicted by the defendant, rather, punitive damages awards are directed to the conduct that caused the injury.

Punitive damages are generally awarded to punish the defendant for intentional misconduct or gross negligence and to deter others from committing similar conduct.

As an example of a punitive award, Steve Wynn the casino mogul was awarded $20 million in a slander suit which he brought against Joe Francis. The L.A. County Superior Court jury found that Francis knowingly made false statements when he told reporters and others that Wynn threatened to kill him over a $2 million bill he ran up during a gambling spree at Wynn’s casino. As a result Wynn is now entitled to seek additional punitive damages because the jury found that Francis acted with malice.

Given the punitive nature Wynn’s lawyers will ask the jury to punish Francis for knowingly making malicious statements in hopes that it deters future conduct.