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What Is the Difference between Punitive and Compensatory Damages?

by Feb 2, 2023Mike Miller, Personal Injury

The distinction of punitive damages versus compensatory damages can be confusing for accident victims, especially when trying to determine which types of expenses fall into each category. Here’s more on special compensatory vs. punitive damages and how you may be able to claim both in your personal injury case.

What is the difference between compensatory and punitive damages?

The easiest way to describe the difference between the two is that compensatory damages focus on compensating the victim, and addressing their accident related expenses, while punitive damages are meant to punish the responsible party because of their role in the accident. Compensatory damages are sought in nearly every personal injury case. They make up the majority of the case and address the most common expenses a plaintiff will need covered after an accident. Punitive damages are pretty rare, and are generally only included in a case where compensatory damages are on the table. In other words, a personal injury lawsuit generally would not focus solely on punitive damages. It may be appropriate to seek punitive damages if there has been some sort of egregious behavior that contributed to the cause of action, ie the at-fault driver had been drinking and driving.

Are pain and suffering compensatory damages?

Pain and suffering is considered under the umbrella of compensatory damages because it is meant to benefit the accident victim for their damages, as opposed to specifically punishing the at-fault driver. It falls under the category of non-economic losses which also includes loss of enjoyment of life and damage to relationships as a result of injury. Although this differs from economic damages like medical bills and lost wages, it would still be considered compensatory in nature.

What’s the full breakdown of compensatory vs. punitive damages?

Compensatory damages are broken down into economic and non-economic damages. Economic damages include:

  • Medical bills and ongoing medical expenses
  • Past, present, and future lost wages that occur as a result of the accident
  • Damage to property involved in the accident

Non-economic damages include:

  • Pain and suffering
  • Emotional distress
  • Loss of enjoyment of life after the accident
  • Negative impact on relationships with spouse and/or children

Punitive damages are considered in cases where the defendant has acted in a particularly reckless or egregious manner. Some of the most common cases where you might find punitive damages include drunk driving crashes. When a judge or jury is considering awarding punitive damages, they will consider two factors:

  • The reprehensibility of the defendant’s actions
  • The appropriate amount of money to create a deterrent effect on the defendant

The second factor is considered in the context of the defendant’s financial circumstances, so two defendants in the exact same situation could still be forced to pay different punitive damages. There is no cap on how much can be awarded in punitive damages.

Seeking Compensatory and Punitive Damages

If you’re facing a personal injury case, you can trust the experienced Minnesota lawyers at Sieben Edmunds Miller to advocate for you. We are ready to help you begin recovering damages for your injuries and understand the laws regarding compensatory and punitive damages. Contact our office at (651) 994-6744 or submit your information to schedule a free consultation.

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