When personal injury lawsuits are discussed, whether in casual conversation or in media coverage of jury verdicts, the subject of punitive damages inevitably surfaces. Whatever feelings people may have for or against punitive damages, the facts and the legal theory behind them are often poorly understood. This blog will attempt to give an overview of punitive damages in personal injury cases in Massachusetts.
First, what are punitive damages? A person who has suffered personal injuries or death at the hands of someone else’s negligence is entitled to what are known as compensatory damages. These are damages that are expressly designed to compensate a person for things like lost wages, medical expenses, and pain and suffering. They are not designed to punish the negligent party; they are literally meant to compensate, or pay the injured party back, for their losses.
Punitive damages, also known as exemplary damages, are designed to punish a person or corporation for wrongful conduct that has harmed someone, and to deter similar conduct in the future. The theory behind punitive damages is that, in some instances, simply repaying a person for what they have lost is not enough. The law says what we all intuitively understand in our day to day lives: that there is a level of misconduct which, if proven, warrants both punishment and deterrence of similar conduct in the future.
What many people may not know is that punitive damages are simply not available in most personal injury cases in Massachusetts. This dates back to very old Massachusetts law that did not provide for punitive damages, no matter how negligent the conduct and no matter how bad the injuries. That law remains in effect today. Even the drunk driver of a dynamite truck who runs a red light and hits a pedestrian in a crosswalk rendering them quadriplegic is not subject to punitive damages in Massachusetts.