What's the Difference Between Compensatory & Punitive Damages?

When it comes to civil litigation, understanding the different types of damages that can be awarded can be a confusing matter. Damages are the monetary amount a court awards a plaintiff if their case is successful. Damages are intended to compensate for things like:

  • Injury
  • Property Damage
  • Medical Bills
  • Lost Income

Not only do damage awards ensure that a plaintiff is fairly compensated, they also serve to discourage other people from engaging in the same actions that led to the legal dispute.

It is important to specify that there are two main types of damages: compensatory and punitive. Understanding the criteria for these is important if you are involved in civil litigation. Below, we explain the two types of damages in more detail.

What Are Compensatory Damages?

Compensatory damages are sometimes called actual damages and are often seen as the "main" type of damages that a civil court can award to a plaintiff. As suggested by their name, compensatory damages are designed to compensate the plaintiff for their losses. To be awarded compensatory damages, a plaintiff will need to prove that they experienced some type of loss because of the incident or dispute under consideration.

Using a car accident as an example, a plaintiff can file a compensatory damage claim for things like vehicle repairs, medical bills, and the wages they lost out on because they needed to miss time from work to recover from their injuries. The plaintiff will have to argue to the court about the loss in question, the amount of the loss, and that the loss was actually caused by the defendant’s negligent actions.

What Are Punitive Damages?

Punitive damages can be somewhat controversial when it comes to civil litigation cases. Punitive damages are monetary awards that the defendant has to pay to the plaintiff and are intended go above and beyond compensatory damages that might have also been awarded.  

Punitive damages basically punish the defendant for their reckless or negligent actions. Because punitive damages are a form of extra punishment, they are typically reserved for cases in which the defendant's conduct was egregiously reckless or negligent.

Using the car accident as an example again, if the crash was caused due to the defendant being intoxicated, then the plaintiff could possibly pursue punitive damages. Punitive damages are not just designed to discourage the defendant from partaking in similar behavior in the future, but are also meant to send a message to the general public that such behavior will not be tolerated without substantial monetary consequences.

Do you have more questions about compensatory or punitive damages? Call (323) 648-3478 today to speak with one of our Los Angeles personal injury attorneys.


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