What Are Punitive Damages?

Sometimes people like you are injured in an accident where the behavior of the responsible party was so egregious and so utterly lacking in concern for the safety of others that surely some kind of extra punishment seems to be in order. The defendant could be a drunk driver that got behind the wheel of their car knowing the danger they were putting others in, or a company that ignored warnings and fines related to environmental safety because it was cheaper to pay the fines than make the necessary changes. In personal injury cases where extreme negligence is involved, the court may look into punitive damages as a form of punishment for the defendant or to send a message to society that such egregious behavior is not tolerated.

The Purpose of Punitive Damages

car accident injury

Punitive damages, as the word implies, refer to damages that are meant as a form of punishment. This is different from compensatory damages, which are meant to compensate you for losses you suffered as a result of someone else’s negligence or wrongful conduct.

Punitive damages work quite differently from compensatory damages because of the punishment aspect. Suppose you were seriously injured in a car accident that, on the surface, seems like a straightforward case of the defendant’s failure to stop at a red light. However, footage from security cameras at the scene of the accident reveals outrageous recklessness on the part of the defendant along with their extremely high blood alcohol levels. They were intoxicated and knowingly chose to risk the lives of others by driving a car. In such a case, the egregiousness of the defendant’s behavior that led to the accident and your injury may be cause to add on punitive damages as a form of social control, warning others that drunk driving is not acceptable.

Personal injury punitive damages

Punitive damages may be used to increase the cost of wrongful behavior: without the possibility of punitive damages, a facility might decide it is cheaper to settle the occasional personal injury lawsuit or pay statutory fines rather than update its safety equipment and make sure the facility meets inspection requirements. For instance, a worker may have been seriously injured on a staircase in their building due to a faulty handrail even after the facility received repeated citations and a few fines related to their failure to keep it in good repair. With punitive damages included, a lawsuit that might be between a few hundred thousand to a million dollars may suddenly skyrocket to an amount that has a major impact and forces them to address any safety issues that are putting people at risk for serious injury.

Punitive Damages in Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, the amount awarded in punitive damages is determined by a jury. How much you are awarded depends heavily on how egregious, or outrageous, the wrongful conduct of the defendant was.

In order to be awarded punitive damages, evidence must be presented to show that the defendant exhibited wilful behavior — knowing that this behavior could lead to the harm of others —  that either intended harm or was indifferent to the harm it could cause, and that the causative behavior was egregious. In Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court has ruled that the conduct necessary to demonstrate a need for punitive damages was a mental state that goes beyond gross negligence to the point of reckless indifference to the interests of others. The defendant must have been able to recognize the serious danger their behavior posed to others and yet still consciously chose to pursue their course of action. 

Calculating punitive damages

There are other considerations for punitive damages beyond the reckless conduct of the defendant, including the extent and nature of the injuries you experienced as a result of that conduct. Another factor that comes into play is whether punitive damages will successfully deter a repeat of the wrongful actions. The wealth and financial standing of the defendant are also taken into account because punitive damages will not be awarded if the amount is far more than what the defendant can reasonably pay. This last consideration especially impacts defendants with significant funds available to pay punitive damages, such as large companies and businesses.


If the defendant in your case exhibited egregiously negligent behavior with wilful intent, you may be eligible for punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages related to the injuries and losses you experienced. However, you must be able to prove the willful behavior of the defendant and keep in mind that punitive damages, if awarded, will take into consideration the financial standing of the defendant. If you do choose to pursue punitive damages, the assistance of an experienced attorney is highly recommended.

Sacchetta & Baldino

If you have been injured in an accident that resulted from the recklessness of another person or entity, the accident and personal injury lawyers of Sacchetta & Baldino can help you seek punitive damages in addition to other compensation. We will leverage our years of experience in personal injury and accident claims to help you negotiate a fair settlement or pursue your claim in court. Contact us today and let us put the law to work for you!