Compensatory vs. Punitive Damages: Difference
compensatory and punitive damages being awarded

The Difference Between Compensatory and Punitive Damages

Rachel Olszewski
Rachel Olszewski

When a person files a personal injury claim, the goal is to receive the compensation that they need after sustaining injuries because of another person. But not all types of damages are the same.

The type of damages that can be received in negligence claims are called “compensatory damages.” Negligence claims seeking compensatory damages can arise in almost any setting, from car accidents to medical malpractice. In other words, if someone has been injured by another person in a preventable accident or event, chances are they may be able to seek compensatory damages if there has been negligence.

On the other hand, where the conduct that caused the harm was reckless or intentional, a person may receive “punitive damages” from the wrongdoer. Unlike compensatory damages, punitive damages are designed to punish the wrongdoer and deter him or her and others from doing something similar in the future.

Thus, two kinds of damages can be awarded to a victim depending on the circumstances, “compensatory damages” and “punitive damages.”

What are Compensatory Damages?

Compensatory damages describe things a person needs to make them whole again after the incident. They include items such as reimbursement for out-of-pocket costs and losses they accrued because of their accident.

To receive compensatory damages, a plaintiff must prove that:

  • A loss occurred
  • The loss was caused by the defendant.

The plaintiff must also quantify the amount of the loss in the court’s eyes. Compensatory damages are designed to reimburse plaintiffs for any actual losses they have experienced, both economic and non-economic. The goal is to restore them to their financial position before the accident/injury.

One of the primary differences between punitive and compensatory damages is that compensatory damages are not intended to punish the wrongdoer. Their only purpose is to offer the plaintiff some financial relief.

Types of Compensatory Damages

Compensatory damages are commonly associated with physical injuries, and they can also include compensation for one’s pain and suffering associated with their injuries. They can also include less obvious injuries such as emotional distress caused by the accident. There are two types of compensatory damages, actual and general.

Actual Compensatory Damages

Actual damages are geared to only replace what was lost. They are usually calculated by totaling the expenses incurred by the plaintiff because of the injury they have suffered.

Examples of actual damages are as follows.

  • Medical bills
  • Property damage
  • Nursing home care
  • Increased living expenses
  • Physical therapy
  • Rehabilitation expenses
  • Transportation

General Compensatory Damages

On the other hand, general compensatory damages include estimates of losses not involving actual monetary expenses. Hence, they are more variable and challenging to prove. Examples include:

  • Mental anguish
  • Inconvenience
  • Loss of opportunity
  • Loss of companionship
  • Loss of enjoyment of life
  • Disfigurement

For example, a person might be able to receive compensation because of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms stemming from the event.

Drawing the line between compensatory and punitive damages can be hard. It’s best to consult a skilled attorney so you know you’re on the right track.

What are Punitive Damages?

Punitive damages are very different from compensatory damages. They are also referred to as “exemplary” damages because they are intended to set an example and stop others from committing similar acts.

When someone seeks punitive damages, they’re seeking compensation that’s meant to serve as punishment for the other party’s outrageous behavior.

Punitive damages are sought when a person’s behavior is more than negligent and rises to the level of reckless or intentional. Punitive damages are typically only awarded in cases where a defendant’s behavior was extremely careless or malicious.

It’s worth mentioning that punitive damages are awarded on top of what is necessary to compensate the plaintiff for losses. In other words, they are awarded when the compensatory damages are deemed insufficient.

The court must account for several factors before awarding punitive damages, including:

  • Whether the defendant’s actions were malicious or intentional
  • Whether similar cases called for punitive damages

Types of Punitive Damages

Punitive damages can be awarded for hurtful conduct such as:

  • Extreme negligence in medical malpractice cases
  • Any behavior that is highly dangerous and puts the public in harm’s way
  • A complete disregard for laws and statutes

If the defendant acted intentionally, with the full knowledge that their actions can result in substantial harm, they can be liable for punitive damages.

For instance, a motorist who causes an accident while driving drunk may have to pay punitive damages. These types of damages are meant to deter the defendant and others from acting in the same reckless manner that led to the accident in the first place. Punitive damages are awarded when the courts and juries decide that the conduct is more than simply negligent.

A few examples of lawsuits that commonly result in punitive damages are as follows.

  • Automobile accidents
  • Defamation
  • Civil battery
  • Drunk driving
  • Medical malpractice

While there’s no dollar cap on punitive damages, the plaintiff cannot claim a ballpark figure of their choosing. Punitive damages are usually restricted to an amount set by the state’s damages statute.

Contact Scartelli Olszewski, P.C. Today

These are the primary differences between punitive and compensatory damages. It’s crucial to remember that while compensatory damages are meant to help the injured victim, punitive damages seek to penalize the at-fault party. Hence, they inherently vary in their effects on the two sides of a personal injury case.

Regardless of what damages you qualify for, you should never attempt to settle a personal injury claim by yourself. Always consult a competent personal injury lawyer to understand your legal options and make informed decisions. Remember, a lawyer is your best chance at a just and fair settlement.

Do you have questions about the difference between compensatory and punitive damages? Our experienced team at Scartelli Olszewski, P.C. can help. Contact us today.


Compensatory vs. Punitive Damages: What’s the difference?

Compensatory Damages: Definition, Types, and Examples


Punitive Damages

Rachel Olszewski
Rachel Olszewski

Rachel D. Olszewski, an attorney at Scartelli Olszewski, P.C., is a dedicated advocate for clients who have suffered unjust harm. Following the legacy of her esteemed family members, Rachel specializes in personal injury, medical malpractice, and criminal defense. She is actively involved in professional associations and serves on the board of the Luzerne County Bar Association Charitable Foundation. Rachel is admitted to practice in Pennsylvania state courts and the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.
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