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What are exemplary damages?

The basic principle underlying compensation claims in the UK, is that the damages paid should be such that they restore the claimant to the position he would have enjoyed, had the defendant not committed the wrongful acts, which gave rise to the legal proceedings. This article is a guide to the rare exceptions to this rule.

General rule relating to damages

Usually, when a claimant sues for compensation, he stands to recover an amount which the law deems appropriate to compensate him, for the injury he has suffered. These are referred to as basic or general damages. The judge will consider previous case laws in order to determine what a suitable amount of compensation would be. Special damages is the term used to refer to compensation for financial loss, such as lost earnings in the case of a personal injury matter, or the cost of obtaining alternative services, in the case of a breach of contract.

Exceptional cases

Exceptional cases exist where, historically, the courts have found that basic compensation may not be sufficient to take into account the specific circumstances of the case. In cases where the injury has been made worse by the defendant’s conduct, for example where the defendant has behaved in a cruel manner, or continued his misbehaviour throughout the litigation process, it makes it more difficult for the claimant to conduct his litigation. Then, aggravated damages may be awarded.

Punitive damages

In a very small set of cases, such as actions against the police or claims for defamation, a claimant may also claim exemplary damages. Such damages will be awarded in situations where the claimant has already been adequately compensated for his suffering, but where it appears that exceptional malice or intent existed on the part of the defendant. These orders are designed simply to punish the defendant, and thereby, discourage misconduct of the kind committed against the claimant, being committed in future. The leading case in the UK on this issue specified that exemplary damages may be awarded in relation to oppressive, arbitrary, or unconstitutional actions by servants of the government, or where the misconduct has been done in a calculated way, with the intention of increasing the wrongdoer’s profit.

How much?

The amount payable by way of exemplary damages is left to the discretion of the presiding judge, and as such, they can vary considerably. By way of example, the current rule in the UK for actions against the police for misconduct, is that if awarded, exemplary damages can range from any amount between £1,000 and £25,000.

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