We all have heard or read about multi-million dollar verdicts where a jury awarded millions of dollars in "punitive damages." Well, what are punitive damages and under what circumstances are they awarded?
Unlike "compensatory damages," which are designed to compensate people for their injuries, pain and suffering, and financial losses, "punitive" damages are specifically intended to punish a defendant whose conduct was particularly bad and to deter him (and others) from engaging in similar conduct in the future.
In Georgia, for instance, punitive damages may be awarded only in such "tort" actions in which it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant's actions showed "willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences." O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1 (West 2002). In other words, punitive damages are intended for cases where there's been much more than just a simple mistake or a regrettable lapse of judgment. A showing of especially bad behavior is required; for example, a doctor cutting off the wrong leg due to inattention or completely abandoning a patient during a time of dire need, an impaired driver operating his vehicle under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or a person violently assaulting another with specific intent to cause harm.
Punitive damages are to be awarded solely to punish, penalize, or deter a defendant's conduct. O.C.G.A. § 51-12-5.1 (West 2002). In Georgia, something more than the mere commission of a wrongful act or "tort" is necessary for the imposition of punitive damages. Negligence alone, even gross negligence, will not support an award of punitive damages. To recover punitive damages, a party usually has to show conduct that is fairly extreme and outrageous, the type of conduct that no one would want to encourage or accept in their community.