Can I get punitive damages for my injury?

Many people contemplating a personal injury lawsuit want to know what type of compensation they might be able to get. Some plaintiffs wonder if they should ask for punitive damages.

Here, as in so many other cases, a lawyer will produce his or her favorite answer: it depends. Illinois law does not permit punitive awards in medical malpractice cases or when the defendant is a government entity. Most wrongful death actions are also barred from punitive damages recovery.

Action must be intentional and malicious or reckless

In other types of personal injury claims, the appropriateness of requesting punitive damages generally depends on the conduct of the defendant. Compensatory damages aim to restore the plaintiff to approximately the position he or she would occupy had the accident not occurred. Thus, they may include awards to cover medical treatment or to recoup lost earnings.

Punitive damages, however, aim to punish outstandingly bad conduct. While any personal injury case depends on proving the defendant acted negligently, a punitive award demands a much higher level of wrongdoing. The law requires showing the defendant acted intentionally, maliciously and/or with reckless disregard for safety.

For example, in a motor vehicle accident case, a driver may deserve punitive damages for causing the crash by driving while intoxicated. On the other hand, a driver who was at fault through distraction is not likely to be subject to punitive damages.

Product liability cases may also involve punitive damages. Sometimes manufacturers continue to sell a defective product even though they know about the defect and its potential dangers.

Compensatory damages must be awarded first

In most cases, the plaintiff must prove liability and entitlement to compensatory damages before the jury even considers the issue of punitive damages.


The damages amount is generally based on the extent of the defendant’s wrongdoing, not on the resulting suffering to the plaintiff. In the case of an individual defendant, actually recovering the award may prove difficult, as many insurance companies will not cover punitive awards.

If you suffered injury through another’s negligence, speak with a qualified attorney near you. An experienced lawyer can evaluate your case and help you understand the best options for obtaining legal compensation.