Compensatory vs Punitive Damages

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Compensatory and punitive damages are two types of monetary settlements that may be claimed in a personal injury case. While they both aim to address wrongdoing, they are awarded under different circumstances. Keep reading to learn the definitions, purposes, and applications of compensatory vs punitive damages to understand when and if you should pursue these in your personal injury case. 

Compensatory Damages: Making the Plaintiff Whole

Compensatory damages are intended to reimburse the plaintiff (accuser) for losses incurred due to the defendant’s (accused) actions. They are meant to restore the plaintiff to the position they would have been in physically, emotionally, and financially if the harm had not occurred.

Types of Compensatory Damages

  • Economic damages: These cover losses such as medical expenses, property damage, and lost wages.
  • Non-economic damages: These address losses, including pain and suffering, emotional distress, and consortium (partnership).

The primary goal of compensatory damages is restitution. They are designed to provide a financial remedy that covers immediate and future expenses related to the harm experienced by the plaintiff. By doing so, the law seeks to mitigate the impact of the defendant’s actions on the plaintiff’s life.


Consider a car accident caused by a negligent driver. The victim might have medical bills, require vehicle repairs, and lose income due to the inability to work. Compensatory damages would cover these costs, ensuring the victim doesn’t pay the financial burden of another’s negligence.

Punitive Damages: Punishing the Wrongdoer

Punitive damages, also known as exemplary damages, are awarded in addition to compensatory damages. Their purpose is not to compensate the plaintiff but to punish the defendant for particularly shocking or malicious conduct and to prevent similar behavior in the future.

Criteria for Awarding Punitive Damages

Punitive damages are not awarded in every case. They are typically reserved for situations where the defendant’s actions were willfully reckless, malicious, or fraudulent. The behavior must go beyond mere negligence to warrant such a punishment.

Proving that someone willingly caused harm to another can be difficult and subjective in many cases. It is not unheard of, however. It is similar to the process used to prove Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress when suing for psychological trauma without physical injury or property damage. Your personal injury attorney will help you build a case using the following resources:

Expert Witness Testimony: medical professionals can ascertain whether or not your injuries were deliberately inflicted and any psychological trauma that may be expected as a result.

Your Testimony: you may be asked to provide written and verbal testimony regarding your injuries. You can provide evidence in the form of photographs, journal entries, texts, and voicemails to help support your statements.

Statements From Friends, Coworkers, and Family: anyone you know who personally witnessed you being intentionally hurt or discussed your abuse with you may offer statements to help prove your claim for punitive damages.   

Punitive Damages vs Compensatory Damages In Car Accidents

Outside of blatant abuse or egregious emotional harm, punitive damages may be awarded to a victim in certain car accident cases. They are commonly sought in drunk driving cases, for example, where it can reasonably argued that a person willingly engaged in reckless behavior that could harm someone else. This is primarily to discourage other drivers from behaving similarly, lest they be subjected to heavy financial consequences. 

Compensatory damages will cover things like the cost of repairs to the vehicle, medical bills, loss of wages during recovery, and pain and suffering related to the accident. 

Compensatory vs Punitive Damages: In Summary


  • Compensatory damages: Focuses on compensating the plaintiff for losses incurred.
  • Punitive damages: Aims to punish the defendant and deter future misconduct.

Basis for Award

  • Compensatory damages: Awarded based on the actual harm or loss suffered by the plaintiff.
  • Punitive damages: Awarded based on the severity of the defendant’s wrongful conduct.


  • Compensatory damages: Common in civil cases where the plaintiff has suffered a loss.
  • Punitive damages: Relatively rare, reserved for cases involving particularly appalling behavior.

Understanding the distinction between compensatory vs punitive damages is crucial for anyone navigating the legal landscape. Compensatory damages ensure that victims don’t suffer financial harm due to the actions of others. In contrast, punitive damages serve as a tool for upholding societal standards by punishing and deterring wrongful conduct. 

Best Personal Injury Attorneys Colorado

If you or someone you know suffered harm at the hands of another, whether intentional or not, please contact the experienced personal injury attorneys at The Roth group. We hold wrongdoers accountable for their actions and work tirelessly on behalf of our clients to earn them just compensation. Call or go online today to schedule your free case evaluation.