In many cases, compensatory damages are the only form of damages awarded. If, however, a judge or jury finds that the defendant has acted particularly badly, you may also be entitled to punitive damages.
The purpose of punitive damages, sometimes called "exemplary damages" (derived from the idea of making an "example" out of a defendant), is to punish the defendant and to deter others from engaging in similar conduct. Punitive damages are roughly analogous to a fine.
When Punitive Damages are Awarded
Just because the defendant manufactured or distributed an unreasonably dangerous product, marketed a product in a misleading way, or otherwise acted negligently does not necessarily mean you are entitled to punitive damages. Such damages are awarded only if a court or a jury decides that the defendant's conduct was especially egregious or outrageous. States often use terms such as "malicious," "reckless," or "oppressive" when defining conduct that can give rise to punitive damages.
Calculating the Amount of Punitive Damages
Punitive damages are calculated based on the nature of the defendant's misconduct in relation to the defendant's wealth. For example, in a products liability case regarding a new drug, a punitive damage award might be much larger if the defendant is a huge pharmaceutical manufacturer as opposed to a small start-up company. That's because a one-million-dollar award may be devastating to a small start-up company, whereas the same amount might be met with a shrug by a huge manufacturer. The idea is to make the defendant feel the punishment in proportion to its misdeeds.
Some states put limits on punitive damages; for example, limiting the amount of punitive damages to no more than four times the amount of compensatory damages. This is a high-profile and rapidly changing area of the law.
Asking for Damages in Your Lawsuit
Once you have identified all of the possible damages you have suffered from the defective product, keep the following additional points in mind when making your claim.
Include all types of damages in your complaint. Be sure to spell out all the various types of damages when you file your lawsuit. This increases the potential value of your case, making it more attractive to plaintiffs' attorneys (who often work on contingency fees) and may increase the amount of money you will get if you win the lawsuit. It's important to ask for these damages up front. If you don't ask for them in your initial complaint, you may not be able to ask for them later.
Include expenses for which you have already been reimbursed. Include any expenses -- such as medical bills or lost wages -- for which you have been or will be reimbursed separately by your medical insurance or your employer. If you win your case, both your medical insurer and your employer can ask you to pay them back using the money you won in your lawsuit (this is called a subrogation claim).
Assessing the various types of damages to which you may be entitled may require considerable legal expertise. Depending on your case, you may wish to consult with a lawyer who specializes in products liability. For help on choosing a good personal injury attorney, read Nolo's article Finding a Personal Injury Lawyer. Or, you can go to Nolo's Lawyer Directory for a list of personal injury attorneys in your geographical area.
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