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Punitive damages, or exemplary damages, are damages intended to reform or deter the defendant and others from engaging in conduct similar to that which formed the basis of the lawsuit. Although the purpose of punitive damages is not to compensate the plaintiff, the plaintiff will receive all or some of the punitive damages award.

Punitive damages are often awarded if compensatory damages are deemed an inadequate remedy. The court may impose them to prevent undercompensation of plaintiffs and to allow redress for undetectable torts and taking some strain away from the criminal justice system. Punitive damages are most important for violations of the law that are hard to detect.

However, punitive damages awarded under court systems that recognize them may be difficult to enforce in jurisdictions that do not recognize them. For example, punitive damages awarded to one party in a US case would be difficult to get recognition for in a European court in which punitive damages are most likely to be considered to violate ordre public.

Because they are usually paid in excess of the plaintiffs provable injuries, punitive damages are awarded only in special cases, usually under tort law, if the defendants conduct was egregiously insidious. Punitive damages cannot generally be awarded in contract disputes. The main exception is in insurance bad faith cases in the US if the insurers breach of contract is alleged to be so egregious as to amount to a breach of the "implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing", and is therefore considered to be a tort cause of action eligible for punitive damages (in excess of the value of the insurance policy)
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