What Are Exemplary Damages?

In civil court, one person sues another for “damages.” Damages, in this context, is financial compensation. If you are injured by another person’s negligence, for example, you can sue them for the cost of your medical bills and pain and suffering. If you win the case, the defendant owes you “economic damages,” which pay for your bills. Then they might pay you “non-economic damages,” which compensate your pain and suffering.

In some states, there is another form of damages you can receive. These are called exemplary damages or punitive damages. These are damages designed strictly to punish the defendant.

Punishing the Defendant

When something is “punitive,” it is designed to punish someone. Punitive damages are reserved only for special cases. The plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s actions were intentional and/or outrageous. These damages are meant to send a message and keep the defendant from ever committing this act again.

Imagine you were injured in a car accident where the other driver’s brakes locked. A judge may not see that situation as worthy of punishment. However, if the defendant has been driving the same inoperable car for months, and this is their third wreck due to faulty brakes, the judge may call for exemplary damages.

Punitive damages are sometimes used when a judge believes the other damages are insufficient. Exemplary damages can boost the total reward, ensuring justice is served.

Exemplary damages can also be used in place of criminal convictions. During the trial, it could be revealed that a defendant’s actions were illegal but difficult to criminally prosecute. In that case, the judge may add punitive damages to the total compensation. This way, the judge makes certain that the illegal activity is punished despite a defendant not being found guilty in criminal court.

Punitive damages are typically used in civil cases between individuals, and they rarely awarded in contract disputes. However, courts have been known to ask insurance companies to pay exemplary damages for egregious bad faith actions.

Exemplary Damages Are Capped

Punitive damages have a legal limit. The formula is complicated, but it works like this:

Exemplary damages can be twice the amount of economic damages plus the amount of non-economic damages. They cannot exceed $750,000.


In a slip and fall case, Jane is awarded $30,000 in economic damages and $20,000 for her pain and suffering. She also proved that the defendant deliberately poured marbles in her path. Because of this intentional act of violence, the judge awards punitive damages as well.

  • $30,000 in economic damages X 2 = $60,000.
  • Add the total of non-economic damages, $20,000.
  • The total of exemplary damages is $80,000.

Clear and Convincing Evidence

When we discuss how to prove a case in court, we often use percentages. For example, to convict someone of a crime, the jury must be convinced of the defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” They must be 100% sure that the defendant is guilty.

In a civil trial with economic and non-economic damages, the plaintiff must show a “preponderance of evidence” to win. The court must be more convinced that the lawsuit is justified than not. In other words, the court must be at least 51% sure that the plaintiff’s claims are correct.

Punitive damages operate in a vague area between the standards above. For exemplary damages to be awarded, the court must have “clear and convincing evidence.” This is not easy to quantify into a percent like the other two standards of evidence. Essentially, the court must be mostly convinced that the accusations are true, but they don’t need to be certain beyond a reasonable doubt.

Speaking With an Attorney

If you plan to file a lawsuit, ask your lawyer about punitive damages. They can review your case and advise you on whether you should pursue exemplary damages. If your injuries appear to be the result of intentional, malicious acts, you may have grounds to pursue a monetary punishment against the offender.

For matters of personal injury and punitive damages, contact Zendeh Del Law Firm, PLLC. We have helped many clients recover damages in court, and we may be able to help you, too. You can reach us online or at 888-4-ZEN-LAW.

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