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15 January, 2016 - 09:31

Since the purpose of tort law is to compensate the victim for harm actually done, damages are usually measured by the extent of the injury. Expressed in money terms, these include replacement of property destroyed, compensation for lost wages, reimbursement for medical expenses, and dollars that are supposed to approximate the pain that is suffered. Damages for these injuries are called compensatory damages.

In certain instances, the courts will permit an award of punitive damages. As the word punitive implies, the purpose is to punish the defendant’s actions. Because a punitive award (sometimes called exemplary damages) is at odds with the general purpose of tort law, it is allowable only in aggravated situations. The law in most states permits recovery of punitive damages only when the defendant has deliberately committed a wrong with malicious intent or has otherwise done something outrageous.

Punitive damages are rarely allowed in negligence cases for that reason. But if someone sets out intentionally and maliciously to hurt another person, punitive damages may well be appropriate. Punitive damages are intended not only to punish the wrongdoer, by exacting an additional and sometimes heavy payment (the exact amount is left to the discretion of jury and judge), but also to deter others from similar conduct. The punitive damage award has been subject to heavy criticism in recent years in cases in which it has been awarded against manufacturers. One fear is that huge damage awards on behalf of a multitude of victims could swiftly bankrupt the defendant. Unlike compensatory damages, punitive damages are taxable.


There are three kinds of torts, and in two of them (negligent torts and strict liability torts), damages are usually limited to making the victim whole through an enforceable judgment for money damages. These compensatory damages awarded by a court accomplish only approximate justice for the injuries or property damage caused by a tortfeasor. Tort laws go a step further toward deterrence, beyond compensation to the plaintiff, in occasionally awarding punitive damages against a defendant. These are almost always in cases where an intentional tort has been committed.


  1. Why is deterrence needed for intentional torts (where punitive damages are awarded) rather than negligent torts?
  2. Why are costs imposed on others without their consent problematic for a market economy? What if the law did not try to reimpose the victim’s costs onto the tortfeasor? What would a totally nonlitigious society be like?