What Are Punitive Damages?

If you suffer a personal injury that Illinois law holds someone else responsible for, you can seek compensation from the responsible party. Illinois law offers three main types of compensation for personal injury. A brief description of these three types of compensation appears below:

  • Economic damages: Easily countable items such as medical expenses, lost earnings, etc.
  • Non-economic damages: Intangible losses such as pain and suffering, emotional distress, and more.
  • Punitive damages: An extra amount of compensation that a court will add to economic and non-economic damages to punish the at-fault party for outrageous behavior.

Punitive damages are not stand-alone. Rather, they are awarded on top of the other two types of damages.

The Purpose of Punitive Damages

The Purpose of Punitive Damages

Economic damages and non-economic damages compensate you for your losses, both tangible and intangible. That is why lawyers call them “compensatory damages.” The purpose of punitive damages, by contrast, is to punish the defendant. Even though the purpose of punitive damages is not to compensate you, the money still goes to you. 

When Are Punitive Damages Awarded?

Per Illinois law, punitive damages may be available in cases involving bodily injury, damage to property, and product liability. The at-fault party’s conduct must also be outrageous, going above and beyond general negligence

In Illinois, outrageous conduct must be fraudulent, intentional, or “willful and wanton.” It does not have to be criminal, but many acts that qualify as crimes also justify punitive damages. Following are some examples of conduct that might qualify as outrageous:

  • A “road rage” incident in which a driver deliberately causes a car accident. 
  • A DUI accident. Even a DUI accident might not qualify if the driver was barely over the legal limit for intoxication at the time of the accident. It is more likely to qualify if the driver was double or triple the legal limit.
  • A criminal assault, such as a mugging or a bar fight, in which your injuries were solely the defendant’s fault.
  • A doctor performs surgery on you while they are intoxicated.

There are a thousand more ways for the defendant to commit acts that might qualify you to receive punitive damages. 


No matter how outrageous the defendant’s conduct was, you can’t win punitive damages unless that behavior injures you. In other words, you must prove that the defendant’s outrageous behavior was the factual and proximate cause of your injuries. This is one of the elements required to prove your claim for economic and non-economic damages as well in most cases.

First, you must prove that if it weren’t for the defendant’s conduct, you would not have suffered an injury (factual cause). Second, you must prove that, given the defendant’s conduct, your injuries were reasonably foreseeable to any reasonable person (proximate cause). It is irrelevant to causation whether the defendant actually foresaw them. 

Jury Instructions

The court will provide the jury with instructions on how to resolve the punitive damages claim. Everything else depends on the circumstances of the case, the persuasiveness of the lawyers, and the psychological makeup of the jury. You can appeal an adverse decision if the judge gives the jury improper instructions.

The Burden of Proof: “Clear and Convincing Evidence”

To qualify for compensatory (economic and non-economic) damages, you must prove your case by “a preponderance of the evidence.” This adds up to at least slightly more likely than not. In other words, you must convince the court that there is a slightly more than 50/50 chance that your version of events is accurate. 

To prove that you qualify for punitive damages, however, you must prove your case for punitive damages by “clear and convincing evidence.” This standard requires more evidence than a “preponderance of the evidence” standard but less evidence than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard in criminal cases.

Punitive Damages Claims Almost Always Require an Experienced Chicago Personal Injury Lawyer

Punitive damages are difficult to prove, and courts don’t like to award them even when they assess compensatory damages against a defendant. That is precisely why you need to hire a Chicago personal injury lawyer from Zayed Law Offices Personal Injury Attorneys if you plan to press a punitive damages claim. Contact us today at (312) 726-1616 and let one of our experienced lawyers help you.