A lot of people will contact us looking for an Illinois attorney. When we ask them about the case they will tell us that they want punitive damages. It’s a really misunderstood term. Punitive damages aren’t something you actually see in most Illinois lawsuits, but they do happen. I thought it would be helpful to explain how it works.

Before we talk about punitive damages, it’s important to know what damages actually mean in a lawsuit. Damages are compensation or money due to a person (plaintiff) for misconduct that leads to injury or loss. There are two key types of damages: compensatory and punitive.

Compensatory damages are for economic or financial losses. Medical bills and the earnings the plaintiff has lost out on (and will lose out on in the future) are examples of financial losses. Compensatory damages are also for non-economic factors such as pain and suffering, scarring, and emotional distress. Compensatory damages tend to be calculated in a precise manner when it comes to financial losses. It’s much more subjective when it comes to stuff like pain and suffering.

Punitive damages are not based on the injured person’s losses. They are a penalty the defendant must pay for bad behavior. Punitive damages are used to punish intentional, evil conduct and deter the defendant and others from ever doing it again. When the conduct of the wrongdoer is so reckless that it is done with malice or an intent to harm, punitive damages may be awarded. Unlike compensatory damages, punitive damages can vary widely. Arriving at a figure is not based on any set calculations.

That decision as to whether or not to award punitive damages is left to the jury. The jury awards punitive damages if they believe the defendant’s actions were “fraudulent and intentional” and caused injury to the plaintiff, and if they believe that “justice and the public good require it.”

In determining whether to award punitive damages and how much to give, a jury looks at things including:

  1. The harm the defendant’s conduct caused to the plaintiff.
  2. How evil or reprehensible the defendant’s conduct was.
  3. How long that evil conduct lasted (duration).
  4. How often that evil conduct occurred (frequency).
  5. If the defendant tried to cover up the misconduct.
  6. The appropriate amount of money to punish the defendant and deter others from misconduct in the future.

Punitive damages aren’t available in every type of case, but you do see them in bodily injury cases (e.g. if someone drives drunk), some property damage cases, product liability (when a company knows someone could be harmed, but allows a danger to happen anyway), employment law and others.

The most famous punitive damages case ever is one of the most misunderstood legal cases ever. In the case where McDonalds got sued for a severe hot coffee burn, punitive damages were awarded because internal documents showed that McDonalds knew their coffee was brewed at too hot of a level and would likely cause harm, but ignored those warnings as the hotter coffee saved them money.

In some cases you can’t get punitive damages by law. The most common where it’s not allowed are workers’ compensation and medical malpractice cases. That said, in my experience, when the malpractice is egregious, juries tend to award more for pain and suffering. It ends up having an effect similar to punitive damages.

If you have questions about punitive damages or anything related to Illinois law, please contact us any time at 312-346-5320 to speak with an experienced attorney for free.