Definition of punitive damages
Punitive damages (termed exemplary damages in the United Kingdom) are damages intended to reform or deter the defendant and others from engaging in conduct similar to that which formed the basis of the lawsuit. Although the purpose of punitive damages is not to compensate the plaintiff, the plaintiff will in fact receive all or some portion of the punitive damage award.
Punitive damages are often awarded where compensatory damages are deemed an inadequate remedy. The court may impose them to prevent under-compensation of plaintiffs, to allow redress for undetectable torts and taking some strain away from the criminal justice system. However, punitive damages awarded under court systems that recognize them may be difficult to enforce in jurisdictions that do not recognize them. For example, punitive damages awarded to one party in a US case would be difficult to get recognition for in a European court, where punitive damages are most likely to be considered to violate ordre public.
Because they usually compensate the plaintiff in excess of the plaintiff's provable injuries, punitive damages are awarded only in special cases, usually under tort law, where the defendant's conduct was egregiously insidious. Punitive damages cannot generally be awarded in contract disputes. The main exception is in insurance bad faith cases in the United States, where the insurer's breach of contract is alleged to be so egregious as to amount to a breach of the "implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing," and is therefore considered to be a tort cause of action eligible for punitive damages (in excess of the value of the insurance policy).
In the U.S., there is no maximum dollar amount of punitive damages that a defendant can be ordered to pay. Instead, appellate courts often look at the ratio of punitive damages to compensatory damages. Only in rare cases is a punitive damages award of more than 4 times the compensatory damages justifiable.
- Wiktionary. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.