September 21, 2011

What are Punitive Damages In Illinois Personal Injury Cases?

by Levin & Perconti

Punitive damages seem to be at the center of the tort-reform debate, but they are rarely properly understood. Punitive damages are awards given in a civil or tort case that are intended to send a message to the defendant – and others engaging in similar conduct – that the defendant's behavior is unsafe or inappropriate.

The legal system is one of the most important ways that society is able to promote public safety, and our Chicago personal injury attorneys understand that punitive damages are an integral part of this process.

Punitive damages are awarded very rarely, but juries or judges may choose to include them in a verdict. There is no maximum dollar amount of punitive damages that a defendant can be ordered to pay. Although the purpose of punitive damages is not to reimburse the plaintiff for his or her injuries, but rather to punish the defendant for wrongdoing, the plaintiff may receive all or some of the punitive damage award. Sometimes a portion of the award may go to charity, or to help other victims who have been injured in a similar manner as the defendant. Nevertheless, punitive damages are only awarded in special cases where the defendant’s conduct was especially egregious or hazardous.

Sometimes punitive damages may be awarded when other aspects of the verdict in an Illinois personal injury lawsuit don’t seem to be enough of a remedy to compensate the plaintiff. This, however, has sparked a lot of debate. When multi-million dollar lawsuits are publicized in the media, punitive damages get criticized because many feel that the extra award is excessive.

In response to this allegation, the Center for Justice and Democracy has taken a stand. In a recently-released statement, the Center for Justice and Democracy has said that having the availability of punitive damages is “critical in the fight against reckless corporate behavior.” According to the Center for Justice & Democracy’s Executive Director, Joanne Doroshow, the importance of punitive damages comes from their “signaling to big companies that the financial consequences of acting recklessly can be severe.”

So where does the controversy stem from? Many lawmakers argue that punitive damages should be capped because they provide what these legislators sometimes term as excessive awards. Nevertheless, these policymakers fail to take into account both the fact that punitive damages serve a very important function in society, and the fact that they are relatively rare. According to the Center for Justice and Democracy’s report, “punitive damages are rarely sought and rarely awarded (5 percent of civil cases, 3 percent of tort cases with plaintiff winners). Most punitive damage awards are quite modest ($64,000 median in civil cases; $55,000 median in tort cases).”

The reason we hear about big verdicts, then, is because the message sent to the wrongdoers reaches far and wide. We only hear about large verdicts, and the media never reports smaller wins.

Our Chicago personal injury lawyers understand the physical and emotional suffering that comes with an injury or wrongful death caused by another. They have handled many cases in which punitive damages were used to send a message to large corporations that they cannot continue to engage in dangerous behavior.

If you or a loved one has suffered an injury as a result of another person or company’s negligence, please contact an attorney immediately to better understand your rights.