How Do Punitive Damages Work?

On Behalf of | Oct 17, 2023 | Personal Injury |

The South Carolina Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office explains that punitive damage awards do increase annually based on inflation when applicable. For example, in 2022 the amount cap was $636,014.

Losing a loved one due to the negligence or wrongdoing of another is a heart-wrenching experience. In such tragic cases, families may seek compensation through a wrongful death lawsuit, including punitive damages. The law allows for them, but they come with specific criteria and limitations.

What are punitive damages?

Punitive damages, or exemplary damages, are financial awards that punish a defendant for their reckless or willful behavior. In wrongful death cases, these damages serve as a way to deter individuals and entities from engaging in similar misconduct in the future.

South Carolina’s criteria

South Carolina law mandates that, when filing a wrongful death complaint, a plaintiff must explicitly request punitive damages. To succeed in securing them, the plaintiff must provide “clear and convincing evidence” that the defendant acted in a “willful, wanton, or reckless” manner. This is a high standard of proof.


Punitive damages have several limitations, aiming to balance the interests of justice and fairness They may not exceed three times the amount of compensatory damages. Unless the plaintiff can meet certain conditions, the maximum amount for punitive damages in a wrongful death case is $500,000.

The court can exceed $500,000 if it determines that the defendant’s motivation was financial gain or would constitute a felony. In these cases, punitive damages can be up to four times the compensatory damages or a maximum of $2 million.

The significance

Punitive damages play a pivotal role in the legal system. They not only serve as a form of retribution against a wrongdoer but also send a clear message that society will not tolerate such behavior. In wrongful death cases, this can provide some measure of closure to grieving families.

It is not easy to secure punitive damages. However, it may be worth asking for them, especially in a wrongful death case as it sends a message to the defendant about the seriousness of their actions.