BJS: Bureau of Justice Statistics

clear image
Home  |  About Us  |  Contact Us  |  Get notifications  |  Help  |  A-Z Topic List
Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS)
clear image
Punitive damages in civil trials
On This Page
About this Topic

Damages awarded in civil trial litigation can take the form of compensatory or punitive awards. Punitive damages are not awarded for the purpose of compensating injured plaintiffs, but are almost exclusively reserved for civil claims in which the defendant’s conduct was considered grossly negligent or intentional. Punitive damages are intended to serve as a means for punishing the defendant and deterring others from committing similar actions (Black’s Law Dictionary, 1990). Some of the key findings from the BJS punitive damages report include:

  • Litigants sought punitive damages in 12% of the estimated 25,000 civil trials concluded in 2005.
  • Punitive damages were sought in 10% of all tort trials; however, for certain case types including slander or libel, conversion, and intentional tort cases, punitive damages were requested in approximately 30% of trials.
  • Punitive damages were awarded in 700 (5%) of the 14,359 trials where plaintiffs prevailed.
  • Plaintiffs received punitive damages in 30% of the 1,761 civil trials in which these damages were requested and the plaintiff prevailed.
  • The median punitive damage award was $64,000, and 13% of cases with punitive awards had damages of $1 million or more.
  • In 76% of the 632 civil trials with both punitive and compensatory damages, the ratio of punitive to compensatory damages was 3 to 1 or less.
  • Differences in punitive damages between bench and jury trials were greater in contract cases than in tort cases.
  • Litigants filed motions for post-trial relief in nearly half of civil trials with punitive damages and appeals in about a third of civil trials with punitive damages.

Publications & Products

Punitive Damage Awards in State Courts, 2005 Presents findings on civil trials concluded in 2005 in a national sample of state trial courts in which punitive damages were requested or awarded.
  Full report (PDF 537K) | ASCII file (27K) | Spreadsheet (Zip format 33K)

Punitive Damage Awards in Large Counties, 2001 Presents findings on civil trials concluded in 2001 in the Nation's 75 largest counties that produced a punitive damage award.
  Full report (PDF 521K) | ASCII file (7K) | Spreadsheet (Zip format 13K) | Codebooks and Datasets