Punitive damages as the name suggests is intended for punishing the guilty party. However, these damages are rarely awarded in personal injury cases, unless the court decides the behavior of the defendant was especially reprehensible that deserves punishment. Since these damages are punitive in nature, they are not associated with any tangible injuries or damages. These damages are not meant for compensating the victim for any particular loss; however, the victim is the one who receives the amount of the awarded punitive damages.
Some Tangible Reasons
In most states, punitive damages are awarded in personal injury cases where there has been gross negligence or intentional misconduct. In some states, acts of deceit, malice, or recklessness are also considered grounds for awarding punitive damages.
An act is considered grossly negligent, when it is done recklessly, and with indifference or with conscious disregard to the safety of others. In comparison, general negligence is disregarding the duty of acting with reasonable care. However, in gross negligence there is an attitude of indifference or recklessness.
The rationale behind awarding punitive damages is to deter such repugnant or reprehensible conduct amongst people. For instance, a driver intentionally sideswipes another car, because the other car tried to cut him off on the road. In this case, the driver has acted with intentional malice and is not just violating the usual duty of care. In such a situation, the victim should not only be awarded compensatory damages for his injuries and property loss, but also punitive damages, so that the driver is punished for purposefully causing an injury.
In certain states, there is a cap on awarding punitive damages in personal injury cases. For instance, in Florida, the court cannot award punitive damages in excess of three times the compensatory damages awarded to the victim or half a million dollars, whichever is higher.