Punitive vs. Compensatory Damages
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Punitive vs. Compensatory Damages: Key Differences

You may be entitled to financial compensation following an accident. Financial compensation comes in several forms, including compensatory damages and punitive damages. It is important to understand punitive vs. compensatory damages and how they may affect your particular case:

  • Compensatory damages help you with expenses like physical injuries, medical costs, and pain and suffering.
  • Punitive damages are a form of exemplary damages meant to punish a party for particularly egregious conduct.

At Sands Law, we will help you understand the differences between compensatory and punitive damages. An experienced personal injury lawyer will help you seek compensation for your financial losses and punitive damages when appropriate.

Punitive Damages and Their Application

Punitive damages are unique because they punish a wrongful party and are only available in specific instances. The right legal team can help you understand what punitive damages are and when they are available.

What Are Punitive Damages and When Are They Awarded?

Punitive damages are a form of financial compensation intended to punish a party for certain egregious conduct, whether negligent or intentional. This is additional money beyond compensatory damages designed to compensate you for your losses.

Rhode Island General Law § 28-5-29.1 outlines specific situations in which punitive damages are appropriate. A court may award punitive damages in a personal injury claim if the defendant's conduct:

  • Is motivated by ill will
  • Is motivated by malice
  • Involves a callous or reckless indifference to the statutorily protected rights of others

Punitive damages are often awarded when the wrongful party was grossly negligent, reckless, or acted with intent to cause harm. This means punitive damages are not available in all personal injury lawsuits, even if compensatory damages are appropriate.

The Intent Behind Punitive Damages: Deterrence and Punishment

Unlike compensatory damages, which are meant to compensate for actual losses, the purpose of punitive damages is deterrence and punishment. Punitive damage awards are designed to deter others from committing similar conduct in the future because of the risk of severe financial loss. The hope is that others will make better decisions because they know they could face a similarly large verdict against them.

The other primary purpose is to punish the defendant for their extreme conduct. For example, in a car accident, an injury victim may win punitive damages against a drunk driver to punish that driver for their choice to get behind the wheel intoxicated.

Another example is a medical malpractice lawsuit in which a surgeon operating on a person without consent could face punitive damages. There are many other potential scenarios, and a skilled attorney can help identify what types of intentional or negligent behavior might qualify for punitive damages.

Compensatory Damages in Legal Cases

Compensatory damages are separate from punitive damages and serve a different purpose.

Purpose of Compensatory Damages

Compensatory damages are meant to help make you whole again after an accident. These damages help injury victims receive fair compensation for physical injury, emotional injury, and other damage to their quality of life. They may compensate for severe injuries, minor injuries, and financial losses you suffered due to an accident.

Compensatory damages are not designed to punish a defendant for their actions but rather to hold them financially accountable for those actions.

Types of Compensatory Damages: Economic and Non-Economic

Compensatory damages are divided into economic and non-economic categories. Economic damages help compensate for clearly defined financial losses and actual expenses, such as:

  • Past and future medical costs
  • Costs of rehabilitation services
  • Property damage
  • Lost income and lost earning capacity
  • Reduced life expectancy

Non-economic damages compensate you for subjective losses that are harder to define but are no less important. These include compensation for:

  • Pain and suffering
  • Loss of companionship and support
  • Reduced quality of life
  • Emotional distress and anguish
  • Disfigurement or scarring
  • Grief in wrongful death cases

How Compensatory Damages Differ From Punitive Damages

The main difference between compensatory damages and punitive damages is their purpose. Compensatory damages help make you financially whole and repair the damage you suffered from the accident. Punitive damages are meant to punish the wrongful party.

Compensatory damages are also much more commonly available than punitive damages. Compensatory damages are appropriate in nearly every proven personal injury case. Punitive damages are limited to the specific types of egregious or wrongful conduct listed under Rhode Island law. Punitive damages are also unavailable against the state or political subdivisions under the statute, while compensatory damages are generally available.

Circumstances in Which Both Types of Damages Can Be Awarded

Many clients want to know when they can win both punitive and compensatory damages. Typically,  if punitive damages are appropriate, compensatory damages are also available. This is usually because the particularly egregious or willful conduct causes severe injuries or emotional trauma that should be compensated as part of a personal injury claim.

Examples of cases where both compensatory damages and punitive damages are available include, but are not limited to:

  • A drunk driver severely injures others because of their intoxication.
  • A driver races on crowded highways and recklessly changes lanes.
  • A truck driver intentionally rams another vehicle due to road rage.
  • A doctor purposely refuses to diagnose a patient because of malice or ill will toward that patient.
  • A property owner purposefully creates a dangerous situation or trap that harms visitors.
  • A construction company willfully and egregiously violates safety standards that harm an employee.

These are only a few examples where both compensatory and punitive damages can be awarded. You should speak with a knowledgeable personal injury attorney to determine the damages available in your particular case.

Learn More About Your Options With the Aid of an Experienced Personal Injury Attorney

The attorneys at Sands Law have decades of experience with personal injury lawsuits. We help injury victims like you seek the compensation they deserve. Our team will explain punitive vs. compensatory damages and can discuss this with you in an initial consultation. We've helped clients win millions in compensation and will fight to win you the financial compensation you deserve.

Our law firm is dedicated to our clients, including their health and financial well-being. We handle cases with compassion and will help you throughout the legal process. 

Contact us today for a free consultation of your case.


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