Apart from legislation granting a right to sue for a specific harm, personal injury law generally consists of tort law and the civil procedure for enforcing it. One of the purposes of tort law is to provide compensation for damages. This article discusses punitive damages.
Malicious, Wanton, or Willful Conduct
Punitive damages are damages designed to punish the person who committed a tort whether or not actual harm has been suffered as a result of a legal injury. Punitive damages are awarded only when compensatory or nominal damages are also awarded. Punitive damages are awarded when the conduct of the person who committed the tort is found to be malicious, wanton, or willful. In some states, the malicious, wanton, or willful conduct has to be proven by clear and convincing evidence.
Malicious conduct is conduct that recklessly disregards the victim’s rights. An example of malicious conduct is intentionally burning down another person’s house to “get even” with that person.
Wanton conduct is conduct that recklessly disregards the consequences of one’s actions. An example of wanton conduct is intentionally burning down another person’s house while not caring whether anyone in the house might be killed.
Willful conduct is conduct that is done while knowing that there is a strong probably of causing harm. An example of willful conduct is intentionally burning down another person’s house after pouring gasoline up and down every hallway and setting the gasoline on fire.
Together, malicious, willful, and wanton cover the wrongful conduct’s victim, harm, and consequences.
Punitive damages are also known in some states as exemplary damages. Courts award punitive and exemplary damages in the hope that they can make “an example” out the person who committed the malicious, wanton, or willful conduct and deter that person and others from doing the same thing again.
In order to sufficiently punish the person who committed the malicious, wanton, or willful conduct, courts may set the amount of punitive or exemplary damages according to that person’s wealth. Obviously, the amount of punitive or exemplary damages that would punish a poor person may not be enough to punish a rich person. When punitive or exemplary damages are sought, evidence of the wealth of the person who committed the malicious, wanton, or will conduct becomes relevant for the purpose of determining the appropriate amount of punitive damages.