DAMAGES: COMPENSATORY VERSUS PUNITIVE DAMAGES

In a prior blog I discussed the difference between economic and non-economic damages in the context of compensating those injured as a result of the negligent, reckless or intentional conduct of another. (Read More). As a general rule, insofar as money can do it, a plaintiff is entitled to receive fair, just and reasonable compensation for all injuries and losses, past and future, which are caused by the defendant’s negligent, reckless and/or intentional conduct. But what about punishing the wrongdoer when that conduct goes beyond mere negligence? Can a plaintiff recover damages for reckless and intentional conduct that go beyond compensation for economic and non-economic losses? The answer is a resounding yes. Punitive damages, both based on common law principles and certain statutory provisions, can be recovered from a wrongdoer whose actionable conduct goes beyond mere negligence.

A perfect example is a situation where a defendant operates a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol, and causes an accident resulting in personal injury to another. The injured party is entitled to recover for the economic and non-economic damages sustained as a result of the negligence, but can also recover double or treble damages for recklessness under a statute that imposes these added damages where the defendant has deliberately, or with reckless disregard operated a motor vehicle in violation of certain enumerated statutes that control operation of a motor vehicle. Section 14-295 of the Connecticut General Statutes allows for an award of double or treble damages where the injured party specifically alleges and proves the violation of one or more of the listed statutes, and that the violation was a substantial factor in causing the injury.

In addition to statutory punitive damages, Connecticut also allows an injured party to recover common law punitive damages for conduct that is deemed reckless or intentional. Punitive damages are damages that are awarded not to compensate the plaintiff for any specific injury or loss, but to punish the defendant for outrageous conduct and to deter him and others like him from engaging in similar conduct in the future. As a general rule, common law punitive damages are awarded for conduct that is outrageous and stems from a defendant’s reckless indifference to the rights of others. Unlike an award of punitive damages under a statute, as for instance where a jury finds a violation of 14-295 and awards double or treble damages, common law punitive damages in Connecticut are limited to costs of litigation, including attorney’s fees. Further, unlike the statutory award of damages for recklessness under 14-295, where there is a mathematical doubling or tripling of the economic and non-economic award, a decision by a jury to award common law punitive damages results in a finding that such damages are to be awarded, and the trial judge makes an actual dollar award upon a hearing after the jury verdict.

Where the facts support causes of action based on either statutory or common law recklessness, or where the conduct of the defendant is outrageous and/or intentional, adding those claims to the complaint provides an added component of damages based on specific statutes or the common law principles for an award of punitive damages, and should never be overlooked.

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