Punitive Damages in Personal Injury Cases Explained

When one person is injured because of something a second person did or failed to do, the first person can file a personal injury suit against the second person seeking “damages,” a legal term for the amount of money the court thinks will make the injured party whole again. Most damages are compensatory in nature, meaning they compensate the injured party for something they suffered as a result of their injuries. Compensatory damages can be for objective things like medical bills and lost wages, as well as for subjective things, like pain and suffering.

In some instances, courts also award punitive damages. Understanding the role of punitive damages in personal injury cases can help you better understand whether you may be able to seek them in yours.

Understanding Punitive Damages: When May a Jury Award Punitive Damages in a Chicago Personal Injury Case?

A jury can’t award punitive damages simply because it wants to. Under Illinois law, a jury may only award punitive damages when a plaintiff – the injured party bringing the lawsuit – offers “clear and convincing proof” that the defendant acted with either:

  • An “evil motive” when harming the plaintiff; or,
  • A “reckless and outrageous indifference to a highly unreasonable risk of harm and with a conscious indifference to the rights and safety of others.”

The legal criteria for punitive damages are strict. A plaintiff must offer substantial evidence of one of the above for a jury to award punitive damages. The evidence they provide must cause a reasonable person to believe with a “high degree of certainty” that certain allegations about the defendant’s conduct are true.

Punitive vs. Compensatory Damages: What’s the Difference?

Punitive damages are distinct from the much more common compensatory damages, which directly offset the specific harm a plaintiff suffered because of their injuries. Compensatory damages can be either economic or non-economic in nature.

An economic loss has a specific monetary value. Common examples of economic losses are medical bills, lost income, and property damage. A non-economic loss is intangible, like pain and suffering. A plaintiff’s pain and suffering don’t have an exact dollar value, yet it has a real effect on their life and well-being.

Punitive damages serve a different purpose than compensatory damages. They don’t compensate a plaintiff for specific losses. Instead, they punish a defendant for their misconduct. That said, the plaintiff is typically the party to receive punitive damages.

Crucially, while an out-of-court settlement can account for compensatory damages, punitive damages may only be awarded at trial. A plaintiff must take their case all the way to a verdict to recover these rarely awarded damages.

When Are Punitive Damages Awarded? Examples of Potential Scenarios

Many factors can influence whether a jury awards punitive damages at trial. The following are merely examples of scenarios in which they might:

  • You’re injured in an assault. Assault requires the intent to cause harm, which likely meets the “evil motive” threshold for claiming punitive damages in Illinois.
  • You get hurt in a car crash a drunk driver causes. A jury may award punitive damages in these circumstances, depending on the driver’s level of intoxication and history of similar behavior. Alcohol is widely known to dull the senses needed to operate a vehicle safely, which means overindulging before getting behind the wheel might meet the “reckless and outrageous indifference… to the safety of others” standard.
  • You suffer adverse side effects from a pharmaceutical drug. The company that manufactured the drug knew of the possible risks but deliberately failed to warn patients of the potential risks. You could likely claim punitive damages because of the long-term and egregious nature of the company’s misconduct and its implied attempts to conceal it.

Note that a jury can’t award punitive damages without awarding compensatory damages. You must receive compensatory or actual damages first before receiving punitive damages is an option.

Moreover, no one can guarantee juries will award personal injury punitive awards. Even if your circumstances sound like one of the examples below, that doesn’t mean you’ll receive punitive damages.

Are There Cases Where Punitive Damages Aren’t Available?

Punitive damages aren’t available in any cases that fail to meet strict legal criteria. In addition, Illinois law doesn’t allow juries to award punitive damages in medical and legal malpractice cases.

Why Are Punitive Damages Important?

Punitive damages don’t just allow a plaintiff to recover more money when a defendant’s conduct is egregious. Punitive damages in personal injury cases can serve additional important purposes, such as:

  • Deterring a defendant from future misconduct  If a defendant has to pay extra as punishment for egregious misconduct, they may be less likely to engage in said misconduct going forward. Other potential victims may avoid harm as a result.
  • Setting an example  The defendant isn’t the only party who may be less likely to engage in serious misconduct after a jury awards punitive damages. Similar parties may take notice. For example, perhaps a jury awards punitive damages when a product manufacturer carelessly overlooks a dangerous design flaw. Other product manufacturers may become aware of this case and wish to protect themselves from similar judgments by putting more care into their product releases.

Consider this when deciding whether to accept a settlement offer. If a settlement offer is unfair, you may go to court to pursue damages, including punitive damages.

There’s no guarantee you’ll win your case. Going to trial always involves a degree of risk. However, if you go to trial, a jury might award punitive damages. You could protect others from being injured in the same way you were if the defendant must pay extra money.

Punitive Damages in Personal Injury Cases: How Common Are They?

a personal injury lawyer sitting at a desk reading and writing on a book

Managing your expectations when filing a claim or lawsuit is important. The odds that a jury will award you punitive damages are rather low. Research indicates juries may only award punitive damages in about five percent of personal injury cases.

That said, understanding your rights is also essential. If there’s a chance of receiving punitive damages, make sure you’re gathering the strong evidence you need to make your case. An attorney offering legal advice on punitive damages can review your situation, advise you on your options, and help you pursue your rights to their fullest extent.

Contact a Chicago Personal Injury Lawyer

At JJ Legal, maximizing compensation for our clients is our top goal. If we believe you could be awarded punitive damages at trial, our team will tell you during your free consultation. Find out more about what Chicago personal injury lawyers can do for you by contacting us online or calling us at 312-200-2000 for a free consultation today.

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