Recovery of damages (money) is what most people seek when they initiate a civil law suit based in tort. In the American court system, the most typical award of damages is called compensatory, which are granted to restore the plaintiff to the position he or she was in before the injury occurred. Additionally, each party to a lawsuit generally must pay for their own attorney fees.
In certain situations, a party may also be entitled to an award of punitive damages and attorney fees. As you might have guessed from its name, punitive damages are awarded for the purpose of punishing the other party and deterring other people from engaging in the same conduct. The United States Supreme Court has noted that “[t]he purpose of punitive damages is to punish willful or malicious conduct and to deter others from similar behavior.”1
To be awarded punitive damages in Ohio, a jury must find that the defendant’s actions demonstrated actual malice.2 “Actual malice” means “a state of mind characterized by hatred, ill will, or a spirit of revenge,” or “a conscious disregard for the rights and safety of another person that has a great probability of causing substantial harm.”3
When a plaintiff is seeking compensatory damages as well as punitive damages, the trial will be bifurcated into two separate stages.4 Initially, the trial will go forth, and the parties will present evidence “with respect to whether plaintiff is entitled to recover compensatory damages” for their claim.5 During this initial phase, parties are not allowed to present evidence with respect to whether punitive damages are warranted.6
If the jury determines that the plaintiff is entitled to an award of compensatory damages for their claim, the court will schedule a subsequent hearing solely on the issue of punitive damages.7 During the punitive damages hearing, the plaintiff has the burden of proving that they are entitled to recover punitive damages.8 If the jury determines that the plaintiff is entitled to punitive damages, the jury decides the amount of those damages.9 However, the punitive damages cannot be more than two times of the amount awarded for compensatory damages.10 When the plaintiff has been awarded punitive damages, attorney fees may also be awarded, which would require the defendant to pay the reasonable attorney fees incurred by the plaintiff in pursuit of their case.11
1 Memphis Cmty. Sch. Dist. v. Stachura, 477 U.S. 299, 306 n.9 (1986).
2 1 315 OJI CV 315.37.
4 ORC 2315.21(B)(1).
5 ORC 2315.21(B)(1)(a).
7 ORC 2315.21(B)(1)(b).
8 ORC 2315.21(D)(4).
9 ORC 2315.21(D)(1).
10 ORC 2315.21(D)(2)(a).
11 ORC 2727.16(A)(b).