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Punitive Damages

Many people ask about punitive damages because they read about large jury awards in which steep punitive damages are levied against a Defendant. First, what are punitive damages? Second, how are they calculated?

Punitive damages are simply a monetary sanction to punish a litigant for egregious conduct and/or to deter other individuals/entities from similar offenses in the future. Because of the latter, punitive damages are often referred to as exemplary damages. Punitive damages is not an independent cause of action; instead, it derives from another cause of action. What makes punitive damages controversial (and arguably illegal) is that they are uncertain and predicated solely on a jury’s discretion. They also, by definition, can result in a financial windfall for the other party because they are receiving more than mere compensatory damages.

What is considered in awarding punitive damages? In Missouri, punitive damages are appropriate when a litigant’s conduct conduct is willful or wanton or when it evidences a gross recklessness toward human life. Punitives are generally not available in breach of contract actions; rather, they are generally reserved for tort cases.

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