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What are Punitive Damages & When Can I Seek Them?


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In the context of a lawsuit, damages are an award, usually money, meant to compensate the injured plaintiff for his injury or loss. There are two main categories of damages a plaintiff may receive when he prevails in a suit: compensatory and punitive. Compensatory damages, also referred to as actual damages, reimburse the plaintiff for tangible losses, such as medical bills or lost wages, and also for non-economic losses, such as pain and suffering or potential future lost wages. The main purpose of these damages is to try to put the plaintiff back in the position he or she would be in had the injury never occurred. Although money is not a very good substitute for being in good health, it is usually the only remedy the justice system can offer.

The second type of damages which may be awarded is punitive damages, which go above and beyond the plaintiff's provable injuries. Punitive damages are designed to punish and deter improper conduct in the hope that it will prevent a person or corporation from injuring someone else in the future. Punitive damages are generally not available in contract cases, but mostly awarded in personal injury tort cases. Courts intend for punitive damages to have retributive and deterrent effects on defendants, and the United States Supreme Court has stated that such damages reflect a jury's “moral condemnation” of the defendant.

Over the last couple of decades, the Supreme Court has heard several cases in which it analyzed when it was appropriate to award punitive damages, and whether large punitive damage awards violated the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. The Supreme Court has held that for punitive damages to be constitutional, the award must be reasonably related to the plaintiff's injury. In a recent case, Philip Morris USA v. Williams, the Court also held that punitive damages are not allowed to penalize a defendant for harm to people not party to the lawsuit. For example, the defendant, Philip Morris, should only have to pay punitive damages in regard to this specific plaintiff's injuries, and not injuries to all smokers.

The Supreme Court has also looked at the ratio of punitive damages to compensatory damages to determine whether or not a punitive damages award is excessive. In the 1993 case TXO Production Corp. v. Alliance Resources Corp., the Court declined to establish mathematical bright line rule for an acceptable punitive award. However, in 2003, the Court stated that awards exceeding a single-digit ratio of punitive to compensatory damages will rarely be allowed under the Due Process Clause. Each state further has the ability to statutorily set more specific limits on punitive damages.

When Can You Seek Punitive Damages?

When you file a lawsuit, your Indianapolis personal injury attorney will help determine whether you should ask for punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages. If the defendant's actions were obviously careless or outrageous, you will likely be able to seek punitive damages. In Indiana, for example, the Indiana Code limits punitive damages to 3 times the amount of awarded compensatory damages, or $50,000, whichever is greater. Additionally, much of the punitive damage awards goes to a state fund to help compensate crime victims, not to the injury victim hurt by the Defendant’s conduct. However, even the threat of punitive damages is often a powerful motivating factor for a Defendant to pay a fair amount to settle your personal injury claim.

It is important to contact an experienced Hammond personal injury attorney to help you determine whether seeking punitive damages is appropriate in your case.

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***Every case is unique and your results will differ. Contact us for a free case review of your circumstance.

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"After being involved in a car accident, I was very fortunate to work with Don Wruck. He explained everything to me and my family and made me feel involved in all decisions. I was very happy with the result of my case and happy to have found this firm!"
– Kayla D.
"My case wasn’t very large, but they made it easy to recover damages when the insurance company didn’t even want to cover basic costs. The firm was responsive to my inquiries, and very clear about what was required and what could be expected, during every step of the process."
– Wayne M.
"From start to finish, Wruck Paupore PC Law were the best! Knowledgeable and straightforward, they explained the process, start to finish, and gave guidance while allowing us to determine the best course of action to take. We would highly recommend them and would certainly use them again."
– Chris V.
"We are so thankful with how the lawyers and staff handled our case. The folks at Wruck and Paupore were always pleasant and helpful in all their phone calls and letters. It was always a pleasure to get their calls. We were especially pleased with their tenacious pursuit of the goal of full recovery which was far greater than we could have imagined."
– Jay Zoellner
"Attorney Wruck did an amazing job in settling my personal injury case. His knowledge and experience specific to semi truck accidents made all of the difference in the outcome of my case; the settlement exceeded my expectations! The staff at his firm was helpful, responsive and caring during a difficult time following a life-altering experience. I highly recommend Attorney Wruck and his firm."
– J B
"Attorney Wruck did an amazing job in settling my personal injury case. His knowledge and experience specific to semi-truck accidents made all of the difference in the outcome of my case; the settlement exceeded my expectations!"
– James M.
"Exceptional team. They took on my case and made sure that I was consulted on every issue. If it wasn’t for the caring staff and my legal team I don’t know what I would have done. Everyone did an awesome job thanks so much for your help."
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"Wruck Paupore was fantastic. I was informed every step of the way, they did all of the work, and I got my case settled."
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"It was awesome watching Donald Wruck at work during mediation. He really fights for his clients."
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"Wruck Paupore did more than they promised and did all of the work. I was worried about bills and dealing with insurance people. They did everything while I recovered. They were not concerned about earning money but about helping me and my husband."
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– Dana L.
"A great experience from beginning to settlement. Handled our case from start to finish. Explained every step and communicated very well."
– William H.

Your Legal Team

Your Legal Team

Top-Rated Litigator.
Helping injury victims move forward.

Don is a founding partner and one of the nation’s top-ranked personal injury litigators. He is a member of the Multi-million Dollar Advocates Forum, which includes less than 1% of the nation’s trial lawyers, and awarded the highest ranking given by Martindale Hubbel and AVVO.

More importantly, Don understands representing personal injury victims is about more than recovering the best settlement: it’s about helping clients get back on their feet and supporting them in every aspect of their recovery.

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Understanding the Insurance Company:
Getting Results.

In nearly all cases, our clients seek compensation from the wrongdoer’s insurance company. Before forming Wruck Paupore, Jason worked for a prominent law firm representing some of the world’s largest insurers. This experience gives Jason a deep understanding of the insurance industry and the strategies it uses to pay injury victims as little as possible.

Jason -- and our entire team -- put this inside knowledge to work to force insurance companies to pay what is actually owed. Often, we use the insurance company’s own tactics against them as we fight for the full compensation our client deserves.

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More than 40 Years of Experience.
Still Fighting for Justice.

For more than four decades, Keith has been fighting for injury victims. During that time, he’s watched the insurance industry change, with insurers now more interested in protecting their stock price than treating injury victims fairly.

Since the beginning, Keith has put people first. From his childhood in Gary, Indiana during the 1960’s and working his way through law school, Keith has risen to become one of the Midwest’s most respected trial lawyers. He has never forgotten that being a lawyer is about helping people -- and seeing injury victims through struggles in a way that could change their lives forever.

Over the decades, Keith, Don and Jason have fought relentlessly for clients, even when other lawyers have said the case was impossible to win.

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***Every case is unique and your results will differ. Contact us for a free case review of your circumstance.

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