Can I Get Punitive Damages in My Pennsylvania Personal Injury Lawsuit?


Punitive damages are meant to punish a defendant in a personal injury lawsuit. They usually apply in cases involving gross negligence or intentional wrongdoing, but there are various rules that come into play. They will not apply in every case.

Here, you have the opportunity to find out more about punitive damages for personal injury lawsuits in Pennsylvania and whether these might apply to your situation.

Compensatory vs. Punitive Damages

Personal injury lawsuits are brought against individuals or companies that are responsible for causing harm to a person as a result of negligence, recklessness, or intentional wrongdoing. They give the plaintiff (the injured party) the chance to recover financial compensation from the defendant (the at-fault party) to help them rebuild their lives.

The compensation that covers things like medical treatment, ongoing care, emotional trauma, and lost earnings is typically referred to as “compensatory damages.” These compensate the injured party for their losses and injuries.

The compensation that is meant to punish the defendant is referred to as “punitive damages” or “exemplary damages.” They punish and make an example of the defendant, discouraging others from committing similar acts.

When Do Punitive Damages Apply?

Not all personal injury lawsuits entitle a plaintiff to punitive damages.

Punitive damages most often apply in cases involving:

  • Gross negligence or extreme recklessness
  • Intentional wrongdoing
  • Repeat/continued misconduct

Punitive damages are more frequent in cases of assault, wrongful death, drunk driving, hit and run, medical malpractice, product liability, and dog bite cases where the owner knew their dog was aggressive.

One of the most famous examples of punitive damages awarded in a lawsuit occurred in Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants in 1994. In this case, a 79-year-old woman, Susan Liebeck, suffered third-degree burns when she accidentally spilled her McDonald’s coffee on her lap. Her attorneys argued that the coffee was defective because it was too hot and more likely to cause injury than coffee served at other restaurants.

Although the so-called “Hot Coffee Case” was the subject of much controversy and was even considered frivolous litigation by some, the jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages, a figure that was allegedly based on Liebeck’s attorney’s suggestion to penalize McDonald’s for two-days’ worth of coffee sales (which were about $1.35 million a day at the time). After the judge reduced the punitive damages, McDonald’s and Liebeck appealed the decision and ended up reaching a confidential settlement.

Pennsylvania’s Stance on Punitive Damages for Personal Injury Lawsuits

Pennsylvania law allows for punitive damages in certain circumstances and with set restrictions:

  • Punitive damages cannot be awarded on their own. There must be compensatory damages as well.
  • There are caps that limit punitive damages awarded in a lawsuit. For a medical malpractice case, for example, that limit is 200% of the compensatory damages awarded (and 25% of punitive damages must go to the Pennsylvania Medical Care Availability and Reduction of Error Fund.)
  • Punitive damages are only available in cases involving malicious intent or misconduct, and, in rare cases, extreme negligence.

Are You Entitled to Punitive Damages?

Talking to a skilled attorney is the best way to learn more about your right to punitive damages. At Handler, Henning & Rosenberg LLC, we represent people across the commonwealth who have been injured through no fault of their own. In some cases, they are entitled to punitive damages, which can significantly increase their settlement or award. When you contact our Pennsylvania personal injury attorneys to discuss your case, we will be honest and offer a fair evaluation of your situation so you know what to expect and how to proceed. With nearly 100 years of experiencing fighting for Pennsylvania’s injured, you can rest assured that we know what we’re doing. We’re committed to helping our clients recover.

For your free consultation, call (888) 498-3023 or contact us online.

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