Punitive damages go under a lot of names. You may also hear them referred to as exemplary damages, vindictive damages, or retributory damages.
These damages are set aside for acts above and beyond mere negligence. For example, in a car accident they might be levied for a driver who was driving intoxicated, or engaging in a distracted driving at the time of the accident.
In a truck accident case, they might arise where the trucking company forced their drivers to choose between obeying federal laws and keeping their jobs, thus ensuring a tired driver might eventually cause an accident.
They are essentially a kind of fine levied by a civil court to punish bad behavior, and to deter other companies, drivers, or people from engaging in similar behavior in the future.
The conduct required to create grounds for punitive damages must usually be egregious, illegal, or malicious in character. The amount of punitive damages are usually set by a jury and have little to do with the extent of the plaintiff’s injuries or damages.
There is also another class of damages that are related to punitive damages, but which are less serious. These are called aggravated damages. These damages are awarded when the defendant’s conduct does not quite reach a level of egregiousness so as to make punitive damages appropriate, but which was nevertheless reprehensible, unusual, or undesirable to the extent that they “aggravate” the original injury.
Aggravated damages might be awarded when the defendant’s conduct managed to humiliate the injury victim in some way, or cause them a loss of dignity in some way. These damages would be tied back to the original damages in a material way. You might often see these in cases where a personal injury victim is suing for damages related to assault or abuse. You would not necessarily often see these types of damages awarded in the course of a normal car accident case.
Punitive damages may be awarded in wrongful death cases as well as normal personal injury cases. This has only been the case since 2014, when the case Steinkrauss v Afridi was decided by the courts. This was a medical malpractice suit that turned into a wrongful death suit after the original victim died. The doctor in this case had falsified medical charts to make it look as though the victim declined certain tests and procedures.
Punitive damages are rare, especially in car accident cases. If you want to try to push for punitive damages you will need a strong attorney on your side, someone who can make a clear cut case. You will also only see punitive damages awarded if the case moves on to litigation. It is not possible to receive punitive damages in a case that settles out of court. You and your attorney will have to carefully weigh the potential gains of receiving punitive damages against the potential of losing the case should it proceed to litigation.