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Punitive Damages

15 January, 2016 - 09:33

Punitive damages are those awarded for the purpose of punishing a defendant in a civil action, in which criminal sanctions are of course unavailable. They are proper in cases in which the defendant has acted willfully and maliciously and are thought to deter others from acting similarly. Since the purpose of contract law is compensation, not punishment, punitive damages have not traditionally been awarded, with one exception—when the breach of contract is also a tort for which punitive damages may be recovered. Punitive damages are permitted in the law of torts (in all but four states) when the behavior is malicious or willful (reckless conduct causing physical harm, deliberate defamation of one’s character, a knowingly unlawful taking of someone’s property), and some kinds of contract breach are also tortious. For example, when a creditor holding collateral as security under a contract for a loan sells the collateral to a good-faith purchaser for value even though the debtor was not in default, he has breached the contract and committed the tort of conversion; punitive damages may be awarded, assuming the behavior was willful and not merely mistaken.

Punitive damages are not fixed by law. The judge or jury may award at its discretion whatever sum is believed necessary to redress the wrong or deter like conduct in the future. This means that a richer person may be slapped with much heavier punitive damages than a poorer one in the appropriate case. But the judge in all cases may remit (reduce) some or all of a punitive damage award if he or she considers it excessive.


As the purpose of contract remedies is, in general, to make the nonbreaching party whole, the law allows several types of damages (money paid) to reflect the losses suffered by the nonbreaching party. Compensatory damages compensate for the special loss suffered; consequential damages compensate for the foreseeable consequences of the breach; incidental damages compensate for the costs of keeping any more damages from occurring; nominal damages are awarded if the actual amount cannot be shown or there are no actual damages; liquidated damages are agreed to in advance where the actual amount is difficult to ascertain, and they are allowed if not a penalty; and punitive damages may sometimes be allowed if the breaching party’s behavior is an egregious tort, an outrage.


  1. What is the difference between a legal remedy and an equitable remedy?
  2. What types of remedies are there, and what purpose does each serve?
  3. What must be shown if liquidated damages are to be allowed?
  4. Under what circumstances may punitive damages be allowed?