Punitive damages, which are awarded to plaintiffs when a defendant has acted willfully, maliciously, or fraudulently negligent, are intended to deter similar future acts. Tort reformers and the media often attack this form of compensation, however, claiming it is frivolously and excessively awarded without cause. Yet an investigation of the evidence suggests quite the contrary.
Punitive Damages Rarely Awarded
Although tort reform supporters, lawmakers, and corporations would like the public to believe that punitive damages are increasing in both award amount and frequency, the very opposite is true. In fact, when examining the data from various sources, including the U.S. Department of Justice, it would appear that punitive damages have actually decreased in frequency and inflation-adjustment amount. Moreover, the actual percentage of cases for which punitive damages are awarded has, for the most part, remained stable.
Specifically, winning plaintiffs were awarded punitive damages 5.6 percent of the time in 2001, but 6.1 percent of the time in 1992. Moreover, only 4.9 percent of medical malpractice cases included an award of punitive damages due to plaintiffs. When adjusted for inflation, the median amount for all punitive damage awards in 2001 came to $50,000; it was $63,000 in 1992. Contract cases (typically businesses suing businesses) made up the majority of that amount with a median award average of about $83,000; personal injury cases had an average award amount of only $25,000 in punitive damages.
Another important (but often omitted) is that punitive damages are most often awarded in cases that have substantial evidence. For example, slander or libel cases received punitive damages 58 percent of the time in tort cases while medical malpractice cases only received such damages 4.9 percent of the time. In respect to when those medical malpractice cases received an award for punitive damages, most involved some sort of outrageous behavior.
Punitive damage awards are also often reduced by substantial amounts, if they are awarded at all. In fact, 30.5 percent of defendants in tort trials received post-trial relief from punitive damages in 2001, as did about 28 percent of those charged in civil cases. And in medical malpractice cases that took place from 1963 to 1993, an appellate court reversed nearly 10 percent of all punitive damage awards, and 42 percent received a reduction in the amounts they owed.
Punitive Damages are Effective
Although the award of punitive damages often (but not always) goes to the plaintiff in a case, they are mostly intended to cause reform or serve as a deterrent for others that have the capacity to cause harm. Evidence supporting the efficacy of such measures can be seen in cases such examples as:
- The case against an oil company in which one of their workers had his scalp torn off. Though he had suffered brain damage and hearing loss because of his injuries, he offered to exchange his punitive damages for safety changes that would protect other employees;
- An Aryan Nations assault on a woman and her teenage son. The group forced to turn over their compound to the victims, and they were barred from ever using the name “Aryan Nations” again; and
- Dalkon Shield's IUD complications that led to 11 punitive damage awards after thousands of women suffered pelvic infections, septic abortions, death, or infertility. Owing an excess of $24.8 million to plaintiffs in cases against them, they finally agreed to pay for and urge the removal of their devices.
Never Feel Guilty for Seeking Fair Compensation
Those against punitive damages will go to almost any length to achieve their goal of tort reform, even if it means making victims feel guilty for seeking fair compensation for their injuries or the death of a loved one. Do not be fooled! Your life, your health, and your way of life matters. No one has the right to weigh that against profit margins or product representation. But you have a right to pursue the compensation you deserve.
[[title]] can assist you in your pursuit. Dedicated and aggressive in our representation and protection of victims' rights, we believe that negligent product manufacturers, physicians, and pharmaceutical companies should be held accountable for their actions. Take the first step by scheduling a free consultation with our experienced Chicago personal injury attorneys today. Call [[phone]].