Skip to main content

Punitive Damages for Intentional Misconduct

Punitive damages punish those guilty of fraud and other intentional torts.Punitive damages are reserved for those cases in which punishment and deterrence are appropriate.  Thus, "punitives" are not normally awarded in most negligence cases, where damages flow from accidents or other unintentional conduct.

Punitive damages, by contrast, involve intentional misconduct designed to harm or deceive the victim.  This may occur in assault and battery cases, fraud cases, or cases in which product manufacturers knowingly place consumers at risk of injury.

If jurors find for the plaintiff and award damages to compensate for the injuries (losses) suffered, they may then decide whether to award punitive damages. An award of punitive damages must be proven by clear and convincing evidence.

Even where appropriate, punitive damages should not be designed to bankrupt or financially destroy a defendant.  Instead, an award for punitive damages should be:
  1. In an amount that will deter the defendant and others from similar conduct; and
  2. Proportionate to the wrongfulness of the defendant's conduct and the defendant's ability to pay.

Fraud Cases

An award of punitive damages in this case requires that the defendant acted with a certain state of mind. If jurors find that the defendant actually knew the representation was false and expected the plaintiff to rely upon the representation, you may make an award for punitive damages. While an award for compensatory damages may be based upon a finding that the defendant made a representation with reckless indifference to its truth, this is not sufficient to warrant the award of punitive damages. Negligence, however gross, is not enough to award punitive damages. The defendant's knowledge of the falsity of the representation is the state of mind that justifies the award of punitive damages.

Product Liability Cases

To get punitive damages in this case, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant:

  1. Possessed actual knowledge of the product defect; and
  2. Consciously and deliberately disregarded a foreseeable harm that might result from the defect.
The requirement that the defendant actually knew of the defect cannot be satisfied merely by showing that the defendant should have known of the defect. Actual knowledge, however, does include the willful refusal to know. Actual knowledge exists where a person believes that it is probable that something is a fact, but deliberately shuts his or her eyes or avoids making reasonable inquiry with a conscious purpose to avoid learning the truth. Therefore, a defendant cannot shut his or her eyes or plug his or her ears when he or she is presented with evidence of a defect and thereby avoid liability for punitive damages. Negligence alone, however, no matter how outrageous, will not satisfy this standard. Instead the test requires a bad faith decision by the defendant to market a product, knowing of the defect and danger, in conscious disregard of the threat to the safety of those who will be exposed to the product.

Car Collisions

Because most motor vehicle accidents are, in fact, "accidents," few collisions qualify for an award of punitive damages.  For punitive damages to be recoverable as a result of injuries suffered from the wrongful operation of a car, the wrongful conduct must be characterized by evil motive, intent to injure, or ill will.  In most cases, even drunk driving or other reckless conduct will not suffice.