Punitive Damages in Pennsylvania Personal Injury Lawsuits

February 26, 2018

In Pennsylvania, and in fact, throughout the United States, punitive damages awards are frequently misunderstood in the context of personal injury lawsuits, though this general misunderstanding is reasonably justified.  Oftentimes, those unfamiliar with the process of litigation are under the impression that they will secure a financial windfall as a consequence of successful litigation — personal injury lawsuits involving an award of punitive damages can lead to verdicts (or settlements) worth millions of dollars, thus attracting a great deal of media attention.  Thus, the general populace tend to be exposed to news about personal injury lawsuits with substantial punitive damage elements, even if it is quite rare for injured plaintiffs to qualify for punitive damages.

Despite the fact that punitive damages are rather uncommon, both in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, they are occasionally awarded when circumstances justify it.  If the particular circumstances of your case point to the possibility of punitive damages, your attorney will want to aggressively advocate for punitive damages to be awarded.

But what are punitive damages, exactly?

What is the Purpose of Punitive Damages?

There are essentially two main categories of damages in civil litigation: compensatory damages and punitive damages.  Compensatory damages are — as the name implies — meant to compensate the injured party for the losses they sustained due to the negligent or otherwise wrongful conduct of the defendant(s).  In a sense, compensatory damages are meant to place the injured party in a position that is close to where they would have been had the defendant never caused an accident to occur in the first place.

Punitive damages do not operate on the same principle.  Instead, punitive damages are meant as a form of punishment, and as a form of social control — by increasing the “cost” of particularly wrongful, egregious behavior, punitive damages create serious disincentives that keep bad actors from engaging in such behavior.  For example, if a business fails to properly inspect its facilities in accordance with Pennsylvania statutory and case law, it may be willing to accept the standard “cost” of the occasional lawsuit, perhaps a few hundred thousand, or even a million dollars worth of damages.  On the other hand, the application of punitive damages could raise the damage liabilities to several millions of dollars, or even tens of millions of dollars in some cases.  The business cannot write this off as merely the “cost of doing business.”  As such, they are forced to address the safety/inspection issue.

Punitive damages are multiplicative of the total compensatory damages, though the amount awarded is up to the jury’s discretion.  For example, one jury may be convinced to award you twice the compensatory damages amount in punitive damages, while another jury may be convinced to award you three times the compensatory damages amount.  To a large extent, a jury’s award will depend on the egregiousness of the defendant’s wrongful conduct.

Availability of Punitive Damages

In Pennsylvania, punitive damages are available when the defendant has engaged in willful, malicious conduct, or conduct that is so careless that is displays a wanton disregard for the safety of others, or when the defendant has acted with an evil motive.

For example, suppose that you are injured in a motorcycle accident on a sidewalk.  The defendant took their motorcycle onto the sidewalk and drove it for a few blocks, for the thrill of the ride.  At trial, the defendant argues that they did not intend to cause harm to pedestrians.  It was merely an “accident.”  The circumstances show, however, that any reasonable motorcyclist would have determined that such behavior exposed pedestrians to a substantial risk of injury.  As such, the defendant exhibited a careless disregard for the safety of pedestrians — such as yourself — to a degree that would likely justify an award of punitive damages.

Schedule a Free Consultation With an Experienced Allentown Personal Injury Lawyer

Here at Drake, Hileman & Davis, PC, our attorneys have over three decades of experience providing cutting-edge legal representation to injured plaintiffs throughout the state of Pennsylvania, and in a variety of personal injury litigation, including those that involve potential punitive damages liability.

Call (888) 777-7098 today to request a free consultation with an experienced Allentown personal injury lawyer here at Drake, Hileman & Davis, PC.  We look forward to helping you evaluate your claims and move forward with the process of litigation.