You’ve probably heard of punitive damages before, most likely through a high-profile verdict against a defendant who is seen by the public as having deep pockets. Punitive damages are controversial because the purpose of a civil action is to compensate the plaintiff, not to punish the defendant. Punishment of defendants is usually reserved for the criminal courts. However, punitive damages are intended to do just that–to punish the defendant when their behavior has been particularly vicious by awarding the plaintiff monetary awards that are greater than the amount necessary purely for compensation.
To understand how punitive damages work, we’ll need to take a quick look at how damages are awarded in a civil lawsuit.