Compensatory damages vs punitive damages. This attorney in Georgia has a good explanation of the two. Exact definitions will vary from state to state, but the basics are pretty much the same everywhere. In a nutshell compensatory damages… also sometimes called “actual damages”… are when the plaintiff(s) in a civil lawsuit are awarded compensation (usually money) to cover lost wages from missing work, medical expenses, property damage, and so on. Punitive damages are designed to be punishment (again, usually money) due to the defendant’s malice, gross negligence, wantonness, etc., but also to serve as a warning to others who might desire to indulge in similar bad behavior.
The purpose of this blog post is a relatively benign aspect of our legal system that I have found curious for decades. Please know this blog post is not technically about the current Alex Jones’ civil lawsuit, but it is the current example in the news and fits the topic perfectly. If you are not familiar with it, please read the link provided.
Long story short, the plaintiff(s) were awarded $4.1m in compensatory damages, then also awarded another whopping $45.2m in punitive damages, which brings me to my thoughts regarding punitive damages…
Why do the plaintiffs get to keep the money from punitive damages?
Don’t get me wrong, many defendants deserve large judgements against them. Alex Jones in this case especially deserves to be broken financially. But… compensatory damages are ostensibly meant to “make the victim whole”. A hard thing to calculate when assessing emotional damages and suffering, but that’s another topic for another day. Anyway, the court made a decision and the victim(s) were “made whole”.
Now, according to the first link above, “Punitive damages are enforced when the courts decide that compensatory damages are insufficient to cover the full extent of damages sustained by the injured victim.” That sounds like a loophole to me. If the compensatory damages didn’t cover everything, then, well… make them cover everything. Right? I have absolutely no qualms or disagreement with punitive damages as a punishment, and punitive damages are a punishment, additional punishment, after the victim was made whole, from the same first link,”…punitive damages are meant to penalize the at-fault party.”
One question I always come up with, and I’m sure it has occurred to you, too, is: If the plaintiffs don’t get the punitive money, who does? And that’s a fair question. Some possible answers are blindingly obvious. For example, the government and/or the courts absolutely do NOT get one red cent. (It’s already bad enough they fine corporations for screwing consumers then keep all the fines, leaving consumers high and dry, but I digress.)
Here’s my best solution: The plaintiff(s) choose a charity that neither they nor their friends and/or family are affiliated with. All the money goes to that charity. One major caveat, no one on either side, not the plaintiff(s) nor especially the defendant, get to take the donation as a tax credit or deduction. It’s just free given money. To me and my dispassionate mind this is the best solution. The victims have been compensated and the defendant has been additionally punished.
Side note #1: This particular example (Alex Jones) is especially emotional given it is over a school mass shooting, I get that, but I also try to be as consistent as possible and believe the subject matter shouldn’t matter in questions like this.
Side note #2: Here is another good resource for a quick thumbnail definition.