Punitive damages in a Pennsylvania motor vehicle accident

When a motorist drives negligently or recklessly and causes an accident that harms others, the driver is legally responsible for compensation for the victims’ resulting losses. Compensatory damages could include several different categories of physical, material, psychological and financial losses.

For example, a jury might award damages in a Pennsylvania personal injury claim for losses from a car crash like:

  • Past and future medical expenses
  • Transportation and lodging necessary to medical treatment
  • Past and future lost wages and employment benefits
  • Reduction in earning capacity
  • Pain, suffering and mental anguish
  • Property damage
  • Therapies and rehabilitation
  • Modifications to home and vehicles
  • Housekeeping and personal assistance
  • Incidental expenses
  • And more

In extreme cases, the at-fault driver may be liable for damages for wrongful death to the surviving loved ones.

How are punitive damages different from compensatory damages?

Punitive damages serve a completely different purpose — to punish the wrongdoer and to deter others from behaving in similar fashion. Causing harm in a collision because of negligent driving attaches liability to the driver for comprehensive damages. But liability for punitive damages requires something worse than negligence.

A jury can award punitive damages over and above compensatory damages when the defendant’s actions were extreme. In Pennsylvania, punitive damages are appropriate when the conduct was “outrageous.” Pennsylvania courts have also described outrageous behavior for this purpose as willful or malicious.

Pennsylvania courts have said that there is “no set formula” for calculating punitive damages. The jury may consider all the circumstances that are relevant to determining whether punitive damages are appropriate against a defendant such as:

  • Knowledge of and disregard of risk of harm to victim, sometimes called “reckless indifference”
  • Defendant’s overall state of mind
  • Nature of the driver’s behavior
  • Type and nature of harm to victim
  • Intentional harm
  • And others

The size of a punitive damages award depends on the wealth of the wrongdoer because it must be large enough actually be a punishment.