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Compensatory vs Punitive Damages in Personal Injury Lawsuit


If you are harmed due to another person or entity’s negligence, you may have a claim against the negligent party in a lawsuit. Plaintiffs (the person or their family member who sustained harm) usually retain an attorney to represent their legal interests in a lawsuit against a defendant (or defendants) accused of negligence.

When evaluating your case, an attorney will give you an idea of what “damages” may be available to you by pursuing a legal claim. In this blog, we detail what damages are, the types of damages available in injury lawsuits, and other things you should know about the process of filing a legal claim for negligence.

Information on Compensatory and Punitive Damages

What Are Damages in a Lawsuit?

What Are Compensatory Damages?

Examples of Cases with Compensatory Damages

What Are Punitive Damages?

Examples of Cases with Punitive Damages

What is the Difference Between Compensatory Damages and Punitive Damages?

Hiring a Personal Injury Lawyer

What Are Damages in a Lawsuit?

When injured by someone’s negligence or careless conduct, the law entitles you to compensation for your damages, or put more simply, losses. Damages are the legal remedy that refers to money paid by one side (the defendant) to the other (the victim). While the law on damages varies from state to state, generally speaking, the damages you to receive are classified as compensatory damages (money for actual losses suffered by the victim) and in very specific instances, punitive damages (money awarded to the victim under certain circumstances to punish the defendant for their conduct).

What Are Compensatory Damages?

Compensatory damages are for the actual losses you accrue as a result of the defendant’s negligence. Below are some of the most common examples of compensatory damages in personal injury claims.


Medical Expenses: Reasonable costs of needed medical treatment, including examinations, x-rays, hospitalization, physical therapy, dental care, nursing care, surgeries, etc. You can usually recover these even if paid by medical or other insurance coverage, although you may have to pay a portion back to the insurance company in this event.

Lost Earnings: The money lost because of your inability to work or to find work, disruption or discontinuation of your schooling or studies resulting in delayed or lost employment or promotions, utilization of leaves of absence, vacation time or sick leave (even if paid), lost employment or other financial opportunities, or the acceptance of a lower-paying or less prestigious job.

Property Damages: Reasonable costs of repair or replacement values of your car, clothing, jewelry, luggage, glasses, and other “things” damaged in the incident.

Other Damages: Reasonable costs or values of necessary care of your house, your children, and yourself (even if provided by your spouse or relative); car rental until repair or replacement of your car; purchase or rental of special medical equipment, such as a wheelchair, neck brace or walker; transportation and parking for medical services, auto repair, job hunting, and any other tasks or errands made necessary because of the injury.

Future Damages: The value of the above damages projected into the future for your remaining lifetime, work-life or time to projected recovery, as applicable, including all general and other damages defined below.


Pain and suffering, etc.: Money for all the physical pain and suffering, emotional distress, embarrassment, humiliation, shock, shortened life expectancy, predisposition to future injury, and disruption of your life. These damages are very often the largest dollar value in a personal injury case, but vary widely due to individual circumstances, e.g., a scar on a model may be very different in value from the same scar on a boxer.

Loss of Consortium: A term used in tort law to describe the money paid to your spouse for the loss of your love, care, services and cohabitation (sex) while you are recovering from your injuries.

Dillion vs. Legg Damages: Named after a famous case, this is compensation to an immediate relative who saw, heard, or otherwise witnessed, a serious injury to a close family member for their emotional shock and trauma from witnessing the injury.

Examples of Cases with Compensatory Damages

Compensatory damages can be awarded in a wide range of personal injury lawsuits where another party was negligent. Some of the most common accidents where compensatory damages may be awarded include:

What Are Punitive Damages?

Punitive damages, also known as exemplary damages, are a monetary penalty deemed necessary to punish wrongdoers and deter others from committing the same or similar willful, malicious, or intentional acts. Although punitive damages are rarely awarded in general negligence cases, civil courts use punitive damages in the same way criminal courts use extensive prison time; both are used as a punishment for the worst behavior and to deter future bad acts. Sometimes large corporations decide that it is more profitable to break the law than follow it. But unlike criminals that deliberately harm people, corporations cannot be sent to prison. Punitive damages are the only method that civil courts have to protect us from the most dangerous and malicious business practices.

While punitive damages can be substantial compensation for plaintiffs, that is not really the primary purpose; the plaintiff receives the monetary award, but punitive damages are meant to punish the defendant and deter others from acting similarly. The amount of punitive damages is based, in part, on the amount you are entitled to recover and on the net worth of the defendant. If a judge (or jury) decides punitive damages are warranted, a company worth billions would be subjected to much heavier punitive damages than an individual worth far less.

 According to data from the U.S. Justice Department:

  • Punitive damages are sought in roughly 12% of civil trials.
  • Punitive damages are awarded in 5% of cases where the plaintiffs prevailed.
  • The median punitive damages award is only $64,000.

Examples of Cases with Punitive Damages

If a corporation knowingly sells a dangerous or defective product that causes harm to consumers, a judge or jury may decide that punitive damages are warranted if the plaintiff’s attorneys prove that the corporation was negligent. Similarly, an individual can be ordered to pay punitive damages if their negligence causes harm. A good example of this would be a case of drunk or distracted driving.

Wisner Baum has handled numerous cases that resulted in punitive damages awards:

Pilliod v. Monsanto Co.

Our firm served as co-lead trial counsel for Alva and Alberta Pilliod, who both developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after spraying a Monsanto weed killer called Roundup on their properties. The couple’s lawsuit alleged design defect and failure to warn against Monsanto. After a jury trial that lasted several weeks, the jury awarded Alberta over $37 million in compensatory damages and Alva was awarded over $18 million in compensatory damages. The jury also awarded the couple $2 billion in punitive damages.

Johnson v. Monsanto Co.

Our firm represented Dewayne “Lee” Johnson, a school district grounds manager who used Roundup weed killer for years. Johnson filed a lawsuit against Monsanto after he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His was the first Roundup lawsuit to go before a jury in 2018.

After weeks of trial, the jury found that Monsanto failed to adequately warn of its products’ potential dangers and that its products had a design defect. Mr. Johnson was awarded roughly $39 million in compensatory damages and $250 million in punitive damages. The court denied Monsanto’s motion for a new trial on the condition that Johnson accept a reduced award of punitive damages. Johnson accepted the reduced verdict of $78.5 million. The Johnson verdict was later reduced again on appeal, resulting in a total reduced award of $10,253,209.32 in compensatory damages and $10,253,209.32 in punitive damages.

What is the Difference Between Compensatory Damages and Punitive Damages?

The primary difference between compensatory and punitive damages is the effect they have on each party of the dispute. Compensatory damages help make the injured victim whole again by compensating them for their losses. Punitive damages penalize the at-fault party.

Hiring a Personal Injury Lawyer

At Wisner Baum, we have championed claims for thousands of clients across a wide variety of practice areas. We have successfully handled cases in every state in the U.S. and on six continents. Our attorneys have earned a reputation for breaking new ground, holding Fortune 500 companies accountable, influencing public policy, raising public awareness, and improving product safety.

Our attorneys come from varied backgrounds, bringing to your case a unique combination of skill, dedication, and care. Among our lawyers is a former pilot and military aircraft mechanic, three former law professors, a former assistant district attorney, a former deputy sheriff, a former S.W.A.T commander, and a former assistant attorney general.

No matter the defendant, our firm knows what it takes to win major cases. Our track record of success speaks for itself; with more than $4 billion in verdicts and settlements for clients, your case is in good hands.

For a free and confidential case evaluation, contact our office by calling (855) 948-5098 or submitting an online contact form today.



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