What Are Punitive Damages in Massachusetts?

Damages in a lawsuit or insurance claim are classified in multiple ways.  One classification separates “compensatory” damages that pay you for the harm you suffered from “punitive damages.”  What are punitive damages, what do they do, and how do you calculate these damages?

Punitive damages are not meant to pay the victim back for harm they faced.  Instead, they are intended as a punishment for the defendant.  One goal is to deter similar future incidents from happening by putting everyone on notice that there is a price to pay for bad action.  However, punitive damages are rare and limited only to certain situations under Massachusetts law.  There is also not always a set way to calculate them, so they can be difficult to predict.

For a free case review on your potential case and help determining what damages you could be entitled to, call the Massachusetts personal injury lawyers at the Law Office of John J. Sheehan today.  Our phone number is (617) 925-6407.

Definition of Punitive Damages in Massachusetts

There are different names for different types of damages.  Generally speaking, damages can be defined as “compensatory” if they compensate or pay back the victim for some harm they suffered.  This sets them apart from punitive damages, which are intended to punish the defendant instead of compensating the victim.

Within this umbrella of “compensatory” damages, money is paid for damages that are either “economic” or “non-economic.”  Here, the difference is whether the damages are paid for monetary harm (such as bills and lost wages) or for harms that have no price attached (such as pain and suffering).  In Massachusetts, economic damages are usually called “special damages” because they are paid for specific monetary harms, versus non-economic damages are called “general damages” because they reimburse you more generally for experiences like pain and suffering.

Punitive damages are separate from these damages.  Punitive damages are not “compensatory” in that they do not pay the victim back for harm.  This means that punitive damages are not issued based on what harm the victim suffered but rather on what the defendant did wrong.

Punitive damages are not available in every case, and it is important to understand what these damages do to help you understand whether Boston personal injury lawyers can claim these damages in your case.

What Do Punitive Damages Do Under Massachusetts Law?

Courts issue punitive damages to punish defendants.  The goal here is that, by forcing them to pay additional damages as a punishment, it will deter them from doing similar things in the future.  This kind of deterrence is known as “specific deterrence” because it aims to prevent this specific person or company from repeating their bad actions and hurting others in the future.

There is also a goal of “general deterrence” with punitive damages.  That is, there is a secondary goal of stopping other parties and companies from doing similar things in the future.  Some states call punitive damages “exemplary damages” because they make an example of the defendant.  Other companies and people looking on might veer away from similar conduct because they know that the courts are willing to award punitive damages, and that this kind of conduct could be expensive if they get caught doing the same thing.

Again, punitive damages are not intended to pay back the victim for what happened.  However, there often is a secondary benefit that these damages help the victim by seeing justice done.  Many criminal laws do not cover issues like personal injury, and it is up to civil lawyers like our Beverly personal injury lawyers to help victims seek justice.  In certain types of lawsuits, punitive damages might not actually pay you back for bills, but they can certainly help you sleep better knowing that the person who caused harm had to literally pay for what they did.

When Can You Claim Punitive Damages in Personal Injury Cases in Massachusetts?

Punitive damages are not available generally unless a statute specifically authorizes them.  For example, Mas. Gen. Laws Ch. 229 § 2 authorizes punitive damages in wrongful death cases for deaths that result from conduct that is “malicious, willful, wanton or reckless.”  Other statutes, such as the libel statute, specifically block punitive damages for slander or libel cases.

This means that, at the end of the day, you cannot get punitive damages in a normal personal injury case.  There is no statute authorizing punitive damages for injuries in general – even for serious injuries.  Instead, punitive damages are most likely available in cases under the umbrella of “personal injury cases” in cases for wrongful death.  Talk to our Cambridge personal injury lawyers to see if your case has any special exceptions that authorize punitive damages.

If a loved one was killed in an accident caused by someone else’s willful or otherwise reckless conduct, our attorneys can help your family seek punitive damages to punish the responsible parties.  Otherwise, in personal injury cases, our attorneys can still help you seek general damages for things like pain and suffering.  In cases with severe effects, even though punitive damages are not allowed, juries often award high pain and suffering damages to make the victim pay for the harm they caused.  This sometimes makes punitive damages somewhat irrelevant.

Calculating Punitive Damages in Massachusetts

Calculating punitive damages can be complex.  Many cases involving punitive damages are the subject of debate considering that punitive damages are there to punish instead of reimburse victims.  It often begs the question as to whether they are needed at all and how much is enough to punish someone.  Another issue is that punitive damages are sometimes important, even if the compensatory damages are low – but how high can you go on punitives when compensatory damages are low?

Generally, punitive damages must be reasonable.  Courts are often willing to uphold reasonable punitive damages, even if they are not comparable to compensatory damages.  However, being close to the compensatory damages helps show punitives are reasonable.

In some cases, the calculation is straightforward because the statute authorizes “treble damages.”  This simply means that punitive damages are triple the compensatory damages.

In any case, you should get help from our Chelsea personal injury lawyers to help calculate your punitive damages, if available.

Call Our Massachusetts Personal Injury Lawyers Today

For a free review of your case and help to understand what damages you are entitled to, call the Worchester personal injury lawyers at the Law Office of John J. Sheehan immediately at (617) 925-6407.