What are Punitive Damages and How are they Determined?

Lawsuits are a complicated business, and it’s very difficult for the layperson to parse exactly what is going on when they sue someone. It is very important, however, to understand what a lawsuit is intended to accomplish, or you can very quickly find yourself drowning in a sea of legal language you don’t understand. If you believe that you have a legitimate lawsuit, you should educate yourself on exactly what you’d be petitioning the court for, and the process that determines the outcome.

Compensatory Damages

Damages are, put simply, the money a court orders the defendant to pay out to the plaintiff as a result of a lawsuit. The majority of damages that most people know about are known as compensatory damages. Compensatory damages are payments made to the plaintiff due to some loss that they incurred. If, for instance, someone’s home was burned down due to another’s negligence. The compensatory damages might force the defendant to pay the plaintiff the value of the house that was lost. If a surgeon’s hands are harmed in a car accident due to another’s negligence, and as a result the surgeon isn’t able to work for the next year of their life, then the compensatory damages might include the surgeon’s expected year of earnings that they missed out on. Compensatory damages are designed to put the harmed party back where they would be if the inciting incident hadn’t happened.

Punitive Damages

Punitive damages go beyond the scope of compensatory damages. Where compensatory damages include just the value lost by the plaintiff, punitive damages by their very nature go beyond just what was lost. Punitive damages exist to punish the defendant for something they shouldn’t have done. While compensatory damages can only reach the extent of the actual harm done, there is no upper limit to punitive damages. Furthermore, despite the purpose of punitive damages having little to do with the plaintiff’s actions, they are awarded any punitive damages that the court deems just.


The restrictions surrounding punitive damages vary from state to state, due to the controversial nature of rewarding one person for another’s crimes. Los Angeles has a completely different set of legal restrictions surrounding punitive law than New York, so getting a Los Angeles personal injury attorney with extensive knowledge of the local state’s laws is paramount if you are to seek punitive damages. At the end of the day, the punitive determination is made by the judge, or the jury, in case of a civil jury trial.

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