compensatory vs punitive damages

Compensatory Vs. Punitive Damages: What’s the Difference, and Can I Have Both?

We get it.

You were just in the worst car accident of your life, and you’re stressed out, mad, and ready to hold the at-fault driver responsible.
It wasn’t “just an accident,” even though he wants to convince you of that. This person’s negligence could have cost you your life!

Yes, medical bills and paying for damage to your car are a given, but you think you need and deserve more. You’ve heard of personal injury cases where people in the wrong are ordered to pay punitive damages, and you want the same for yourself.

But what are punitive damages? And do you even stand a chance at getting any?

If you are interested in including punitive damages in your personal injury claim, read on to find out more about compensatory vs. punitive damages and whether you can have money awarded in your suit.

When Compensatory Damages Are Awarded

In discussing compensatory vs. punitive damages, let’s first remind ourselves of the uses of compensatory damages. The aim of compensatory damages is pretty self-explanatory: to compensate you for the harm you suffered.

If you’ve been in an accident, your personal injury lawsuit will aim to recover all the expenses incurred due to the accident.

These could include:

  • Lost wages (current and future)
  • Medical expenses (current and future)
  • Property damage

Compensatory damages that could be awarded may include non-economic losses that are not as easily quantified as those above, such as:

  • Pain (past and future)
  • Suffering (past and future)
  • Emotional distress (past and future)
  • Loss of enjoyment of life (past and future)
  • PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder)

Now, you may think that compensatory damages cover a broad cross-section of personal injuries. Suppose current and future expenses are covered, along with both past and future medical expenses for psychological and physical injuries. What else is there for which you may be compensated?

If you guessed punitive damages, you’d be correct. This specific damage claim differs from the compensatory damages that were just discussed.

The Main Difference Between Compensatory and Punitive Damages

Now, forget about you for a second.

Punitive damages focus more on the defendant’s behavior than the injury victim. In other words, the court’s goal is to punish the defendant, not compensate you, the injury victim. While you stand to be paid these punitive damages, the actual damages serve to deter future defendants from doing the same act.

As the injured party, think about the circumstances of your own case.

Was there intentional harm?

Was it a case of gross negligence?

Did the negligent party also commit a criminal act?

Be honest. When you consider the physical evidence, does it appear that any of the above criteria is met? Only after a court finds that compensatory damages should be awarded will punitive damages be considered, and that’s only after the above criteria are met. Consult an experienced personal injury attorney about the prospects of your case.

How Much Will I Be Paid in Punitive Damages?

Don’t get your hopes up. An award of punitive damages can be somewhat rare.

The court’s award of punitive damages will be determined based upon the finding, at a minimum, that gross negligence was committed by the opposing party, so it’s entirely at the court’s discretion

The defendant’s conduct has to be so egregious that the court decides that they must be punished for their actions and be used as an example to deter others.

The court may not even award punitive damages at all. Such an award is not automatic. A good personal injury attorney can work to maximize your compensatory damages.

But even this comes with its limits.

Caps on Compensatory and Punitive Damages

Did you know there are limits to how much you can claim damages in West Virginia? You don’t automatically receive compensatory damages in the amount you have claimed.

Here are some points to note.

Compensatory Damages in Medical Malpractice Suits

West Virginia personal injury law limits non-economic damages payable to $250,000 in most medical malpractice cases.

This limit is increased to $500,000 in medical malpractice cases where the damages and non-economic losses involve:

  • Wrongful death
  • Permanent and substantial physical deformity, loss of use of a limb, or loss of a bodily organ system OR
  • A permanent physical or mental injury that permanently prevents the injured person from being able to independently care for themselves and perform life-sustaining activities

No such caps exist on economic damages.

Additionally, It is important to note that there is no cap on non-economic damages for general personal injuries.

Punitive Damages

Under West Virginia law, punitive damages awarded cannot be more than four times the amount of compensatory damages or $500,000, whichever is higher.

Retain an Experienced Personal Injury Attorney

Are you interested in starting a personal injury case? While courts decide whether the guilty party should pay exemplary damages, you may still qualify for compensation for suffering the loss in the car crash or whatever accident occurred.

Schedule a free consultation with the personal injury attorneys at Miley Legal. We can help you navigate the legal process.

Author Bio

Tim Miley is the Founder of Miley Legal Accident Injury Lawyers, a West Virginia personal injury law firm he formed in 2006. With more than 30 years of experience in personal injury law, he is dedicated to representing clients in a wide range of personal injury cases, including car accidents, trucking accidents, motorcycle accidents, brain injuries, wrongful death, and other personal injury matters.

Tim received his Juris Doctor from Duquesne University and is a member of the West Virginia State Bar and the Harrison County Bar Association. He has helped his clients win more than $10 million in personal injury verdicts and settlements and has further served the people of West Virginia by filling legislative roles in the state’s government since 2004.

LinkedIn | State Bar Association | Avvo | Google