What Are Punitive Damages?

When you have been injured in an accident, your life is forever changed. No matter how much you want to go back to the way things were before, it is impossible to do so. And yet, that is exactly what the legal system pretends it is able to do — put you in the position you would have been in if the accident had never occurred. 

Unfortunately, judges are not issued magic wands upon their ascension to the bench, so the only fix available to those who have been injured is financial compensation. It is a “legal fiction” that money can put you in the position you would have been in had the accident never occurred, but in most cases, compensatory damages, which compensate you for the harm you have suffered, are all you can expect. 

What are compensatory damages?

Compensatory damages compensate you for your actual losses and expenses. Lost income, lost enjoyment of life, losing the ability to do things that were important to you before the accident, pain and suffering, and medical expenses are all compensatory. 

We all know that compensatory damages aren’t going to make the impact of the accident disappear, but that is what the legal system pretends compensatory damages do. We know this legal fiction can be frustrating when it does not feel like justice has been served. At Stein & Shulman we work with a lot of accident victims in the Chicagoland area who are upset that more is not being done to punish the person who injured them, or at the very least “teach them a lesson.” In most accident cases, punishment is not an option. Punishment is what our criminal courts do. However, there are certain situations where the civil courts will consider imposing punitive damages on top of compensatory damages. 

Punitive damages are designed to punish and to send a message to the defendant and others that similar conduct will not be tolerated in the future. They are only available if the defendant’s conduct was fraudulent, intentional, or willful and wanton, and justice and the public good require the defendant be punished.

How Punitive Damages Are Calculated

Illinois jury instructions on punitive damages suggest that the number of punitive damages be calculated by considering the following questions:

1. How reprehensible was the defendant’s conduct?

  • On this subject, you should consider the following:
    • a) The facts and circumstances of defendant’s conduct;
    • b) The [financial] vulnerability of the plaintiff;
    • c) The duration of the misconduct;
    • d) The frequency of defendant’s misconduct;
    • e) Whether the harm was physical as opposed to economic;
    • f) Whether the defendant tried to conceal the misconduct;
    • g) [other]

2. What actual and potential harm did the defendant’s conduct cause the plaintiff in this case?

3. What amount of money is necessary to punish the defendant and discourage defendant and others from future wrongful conduct [in light of defendant’s financial condition]?

  • In assessing the amount of punitive damages, you may not consider defendant’s similar conduct in jurisdictions where such conduct was lawful when it was committed.
  • The amount of punitive damages must be reasonable [and in proportion to the actual and potential harm suffered by the plaintiff.

If you have been injured in an accident, and you have questions about what sort of compensation is available to you, the Stein & Shulman team is here to help. Our experienced team of attorneys can answer your questions and help you figure out the best path forward.