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.