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Q&A: Since compensatory damages reimburse the plaintiff for all losses suffered, how can an additional award of punitive damages be justified?

April 22, 2020

Punitive damages may be awarded in addition to compensatory damages that have “made the plaintiff whole.” Kentucky Revised Statutes 411.184 – 411.186 allows for punitive damages where a civil defendant has acted with “oppression, fraud, or malice” in injuring the plaintiff.

As defined by statute, “oppression” means conduct which is specifically intended by the defendant to subject the plaintiff to cruel and unjust hardship; “fraud” means an intentional misrepresentation, deceit, or concealment of material fact known to the defendant and made with the intention of causing injury to the plaintiff; and “malice” means either conduct which is specifically intended by the defendant to cause tangible or intangible injury to the plaintiff or conduct that is carried out by the defendant both with a flagrant indifference to the rights of the plaintiff and with a subjective awareness that such conduct will result in human death or bodily harm.

The purpose of punitive damages goes beyond reimbursing the plaintiff for losses, as was explained by Kentucky’s high court:

The theory of exemplary, punitive, or vindictive damages, or ‘smart money,’ as they are sometimes called, involves a blending of the interests of society in general with those of the aggrieved individual in particular. According to the more generally accepted doctrine, such damages are allowed not because of any special merit in the injured party’s case, but are awarded by way of punishment to the offender, and as a deterrent, warning, or example to defendant and others, or even, it has been said as an expression of the indignation of the jury.

Bisset v. Goss, 481 S.W.2d 71, 74 (Ky. 1972) (quoting 25 C.J.S. Damages § 117(1), p. 1107).

Not that punitive damages are not available in contract cases in Kentucky, and in practice are uncommon in tort cases in this state as well.

This is a blog post, not specific legal advice. No attorney-client relationship is intended or created.