What are Punitive Damages?

In some circumstances, a jury is permitted to send a message in addition to making the victim of another’s wrongdoing whole. Sometimes, the conduct of an individual which results in harm to another is so extreme and outrageous that the law permits a jury to award damages intended to notify that particular defendant and others who might consider doing the same thing that society will not tolerate such conduct. In such cases, the defendant will be ordered to pay the normal damages, which usually include pain and suffering, lost wages, medical expenses etc. He may also be ordered to pay punitive damages due to the outrageousness of his conduct. To send a message.

As stated in a recent federal court case, “Pennsylvania law allows punitive damages when a defendant has an evil motive or reckless indifference to the rights of others; such damages are available only when the defendant’s actions are so outrageous as to demonstrate willful, wanton, or reckless conduct. This type of damage is not compensatory in nature, but is meant to heap an additional punishment on a defendant who was found to have acted in a fashion which is particularly egregious. To establish a claim for punitive damages the evidence must show that the defendant had a subjective appreciation of the risk of harm to which the plaintiff was exposed and that he acted, or failed to act in conscious disregard of that risk.” Coello V. Frac Tech Services, LLC, United States District Court, Middle District of Pennsylvania, Civil Action No. 3:13–534(2013)(citations omitted.)

In the Coello case, the Court refused to dismiss a victim’s claim for punitive damages where it was alleged that a serious accident was caused by a truck driver’s extreme sleep deprivation. It was undisputed that the truck driver fell asleep at the wheel at the time of the accident. The victim alleged that the employer of the driver knew or should have known that the driver posed a high risk of harm to others by driving with sleep deprivation. This was because the driver had been scheduled for 60 hours of work over the previous 4 days, and worked during the 19 hours leading up to the accident. This was not a case of simple negligence, but rather one of intentional conduct by the defendant that inherently created a high risk of harm to others. If this conduct is proven at trial, the driver and his employer may face a verdict far above that which would be expected in the absence of such outrageous conduct.

In a case being heard in the Court of Common Pleas of Northampton County, the Court likewise refused to dismiss a claim for punitive damages where the victim alleged that the defendant intentionally blocked all of the lanes of travel on a state highway with a tractor-trailer, knowing that the visibility at this sharp turn limited visibility by oncoming traffic. McPoyle v. Mast Excavating, Inc., No. C-48-CV-2013-7658. The argument was that this driver knew to a certainty that he was creating a high risk of harm to others, but did so anyway. If true, he put his interests far above those of his fellow citizens, and he will pay the price.

Other cases in which punitive damages are routinely claimed include cases in which the defendant drove under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and cases in which establishments serving alcoholic beverages serve a visibly intoxicated person who thereafter injures others or himself. While the courts generally do not favor forcing a defendant to pay for more than the actual harm he caused, there are certain cases where that would just not be enough. Those are cases for punitive damages.