What Are Punitive Damages in a Wrongful Termination Claim?

Submitted by Elizabeth on

While most waged employees work on what are called “at-will” employment conditions, employers may be in breach of employment law if they fire an employee for certain reasons. These include discrimination and whistleblowing. If you have proof that you have been wrongfully terminated, you may be able to claim damages, including lost wages, compensation for the pain and suffering endured and punitive damages if the termination was particularly malicious. You will need to have proof that your employer breached employment laws and that you have suffered financial, emotional and physical losses as a result of being illegally fired.

What Are Punitive Damages? 

Punitive damages are imposed on an employer if the employer has been found to have wrongfully terminated an employee’s employment in a particularly egregious or malicious way. For example, if you have been exposed to a workplace regime of constant harassment or intimidation because of your gender, age, religious affiliation, color, disability or ethnicity, then fired, then this may constitute wrongful termination. The degree of malice involved in the termination is the factor that determines whether imposing punitive damages is justified or not. 

Punitive damages are not the only form of damages that may be claimed in a wrongful termination claim. Most claims are for economic damages, e.g. lost wages, loss of health benefits, etc. as well as amounts calculated for the pain and suffering experienced. Often,  punitive damages are only determined if the case has gone to trial and the judge decides that the circumstances justify punitive damages being imposed as a form of punishment for the employer and to deter other employers from behaving in the same way.

How to Calculate Punitive Damages  

Punitive damages are rarely easy to calculate. They are often determined by a presiding judge if the case goes to trial and will then be based on prior judgments and the particular circumstances of the case as well as what sort of evidence is available to show that the employer’s actions justify punitive damages being imposed. 

Most employment lawyers who have handled wrongful termination cases before will have a good idea whether punitive damages can be claimed and will also have a good idea how much they might amount to based on prior experience.

How to Prove Punitive Damages  

As with any wrongful termination claim, you will need to prove that your employer fired you illegally. This isn’t easy and you should talk to an employment lawyer about your case, especially if you are contemplating claiming punitive damages as well as other damages. 

Punitive damages are not standard in every state and there are some states where they cannot be claimed or the amount is capped. You need to show that the employer’s actions were particularly malicious. So, for example, if you believe you were fired because you refused to do something illegal or you exposed an illegal activity or procedure while at work and were hounded for it, then fired, you should have something more than just hearsay evidence. It is best to document all cases of malicious or discriminatory acts against you while employed and names and contact details of work colleagues who may be prepared to testify that they witnessed illegal behavior directed at you while you were still at work.

Get Help With Your Wrongful Termination Claim  

In some cases, the actions of an employer before and while they fired an employee were so egregious or malicious that a court may decide that the employer should be punished for their illegal breach of employment law. The damages claimed are part of the compensation that an illegally fired worker might claim and are termed punitive damages. It is hard to quantify punitive damages, but an employment lawyer may help you with your claim.

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