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When Can a Plaintiff Seek Punitive Damages in Civil Litigation?

When Can a Plaintiff Seek Punitive Damages in Civil Litigation?

In most civil litigation the plaintiff’s primary goal is often to recover compensation for the financial costs caused by the defendant’s bad behavior. Seeking reimbursement for “economic damages,” like past and future medical bills, lost wages, and property damage, is a standard part of a personal injury lawsuit. Plaintiffs often also ask for “noneconomic damages” to recover for injuries that aren’t as easily quantified: pain, suffering, and emotional distress are a few examples. In cases where a defendant has behaved especially badly, plaintiffs can sometimes ask for another category of damages: punitive damages. But what are punitive damages, and when can they be sought?

What are punitive damages?

Lawsuits can serve two distinct purposes. On the one hand, they help a plaintiff who has suffered harm to become whole again. On the other hand, they serve as a deterrent against bad behavior. Punitive damages fall squarely within this second purpose. As the name implies, punitive damages are intended to punish bad behavior by tacking on an additional financial cost on top of the economic and noneconomic damages to which the plaintiff is already entitled. The goal is to deter the defendant and others like it from doing especially bad things in the future.

Punitive damages are not available in every case. Some causes of action that are defined by statute explicitly cap them or prohibit them altogether. For example, a lawsuit against government agencies or their employees cannot recover punitive damages. NRS 41.035. In most other cases punitive damages are limited by statute: $300,000 if compensatory damages are less than $100,000, or three times compensatory damages if they exceed $100,000. NRS 42.005. These caps don’t apply in cases involving products liability, bad faith by an insurer, housing discrimination, defamation, or injuries caused by hazardous materials. These exceptions offer insight into the types of behavior that the law seeks to discourage through punitive damages.

When can punitive damages be sought?

Absent a statute that explicitly provides that punitive damages may be sought, a plaintiff may seek them in cases where the defendant’s behavior that caused the plaintiff’s injuries was especially objectionable. In legal terms, punitive damages may be awarded where public policy dictates that the defendant should be used as negative example to others. Whether something violates public policy is often a question answered by a mix of judicial precedent (previous cases that have acknowledged a principle that has a policy, rather than legal, character), legislative history, and generally applicable mores.

As a technical matter, punitive damages can’t be awarded unless the plaintiff has already been awarded compensatory damages. City of Reno v. Silver State Flying Serv., Inc., 84 Nev. 170, 180 (1968). In other words, they are calculated after the plaintiff’s other forms of recovery have been decided. Because punitive damages have a public policy basis, they are not always awarded to the plaintiff. The plaintiff has already been compensated, so it can be unfair or undesirable for the plaintiff to also receive a windfall that in many cases should be used for public good. Courts will sometimes order a defendant to pay punitive damages into a particular state fund or a charitable organization that goes to relieving the kind of harm that the defendant caused. For example, an insurance company that acted in bad faith may be required to contribute its punitive damages into an organization that assists consumers with insurance disputes.

GGRM works with clients in the Las Vegas area

For over 45 years the attorneys at Greenman Goldberg Raby Martinez have represented clients in the Las Vegas area in personal injury, workers’ compensation, and other cases. If you have questions about a legal dispute in Nevada call us today for a free attorney consultation at 702-388-4476 or request a call through our website.