It is not uncommon to hear news stories from the United States which describe lawsuits where huge damage awards are made.
The large awards you read about usually contain an amount for compensatory damages, which are damages that are intended to compensate the injured party for their actual damages and punitive damages, which are damages intended to punish the wrongdoer for their behavior and deter others from acting in the same manner.
In Canada, punitive damage awards in personal injury cases, especially motor vehicle accidents, are very rare.
The reason for this is that in most motor vehicle accident cases the plaintiff is suing the defendant for negligence.
The definition of negligence is inadvertent (or unintentional) conduct that causes harm or injury to a third party.
As negligence is an unintentional act, it makes sense that the court would be less inclined to punish the wrongdoer for their actions.
That being said, there are certain cases such as those for impaired driving where it may make sense for the courts to award punitive damages.
In an impaired driving case, the driver likely does not intend to injure the other party (hence the claim for negligence), however, the intentional act of drinking and driving itself is such a gross disregard for public safety that it may warrant an award for punitive damages.
The other difference between American and Canadian courts in the context of punitive damages is with respect to the amount.
Often one hears of huge damage awards in the United States and that is not the case in Canada.
The leading decision on punitive damages is a 2002 decision from the Supreme Court of Canada called Whiten v. Pilot and this case set the high-water mark for punitive damages in Canada to $1,000,000.
This case has been further considered by the courts in a variety of cases, but continues to be the leading authority on the subject.
There are a number of factors that will be considered in the calculation and award of punitive damages in Canadian court cases.
It is important to recognize that in a personal injury lawsuit, particularly in the case of a claim for negligence stemming from a motor vehicle accident that it is not likely that punitive damages would be awarded.
You should consult with your lawyer about any concerns you may have in the different heads of damages that you are claiming, including whether or not your case includes a claim for punitive damages.