What Are Treble Damages?

Treble damages is a term that indicates a statute exists to award a prevailing plaintiff up to three times actual or compensatory damages.

For example, the False Claims Act allows the U.S. government to recover treble damages from defense contractors that knowingly submit false claims to defraud the government.

Key Takeaways

  • Treble damages is a term that indicates a statute exists to award a plaintiff up to three times actual or compensatory damages.
  • Treble damages are a type of punitive damage. They are meant to deter others from committing the same offense.
  • Treble damages are often invoked for willful violations of state or federal statues.

Understanding Treble Damages

Treble damages are a type of civil damages awarded in civil court cases. These are monetary awards the losing defendant must pay to the winning plaintiff. Civil damages can be compensatory, general, punitive, or any combination thereof. Statutes exist to award treble damages in cases involving patent infringement, willful trademark counterfeiting, and antitrust violations.

Plaintiffs in personal injury cases may also receive treble damages if the violated statute supports them, if the plaintiff requests them, and if the defendant intended to harm the plaintiff. Treble damages are intended to be punitive in order to deter others from committing the same offense and are three times the compensatory damages awarded.

General damages are financial awards made by a court in a civil case in addition to compensatory damages. General damages are usually requested along with compensatory damages but are more difficult to obtain. General damages typically fall under the heading of pain and suffering or mental anguish, for example.

Treble Damages in Context

Like treble damages, punitive damages go beyond compensating the aggrieved party and are specifically designed to punish defendants whose conduct is considered grossly negligent or intentional. Punitive damages may be awarded at the discretion of the court when the offense is determined to be particularly harmful. They are also called exemplary damages, in that they are intended to set an example to deter future violators.

The Supreme Court has ruled that punitive damages that are grossly excessive or imposed without sufficient procedural protections violate due process. However, states have broad discretion with regard to setting rules for calculating punitive damages. Although there is no maximum sum, punitive damages typically do not exceed four times compensatory damages. Treble damages can be awarded when a specific statute proscribes them.

The term liquidated damages also refers to financial compensation due to an aggrieved party. They differ in that they are typically specified in a contract for a particular offense.

Example of Treble Damages

The Telecommunications Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA) is a U.S. law passed in response to concerns about telemarketing. The act sets guidelines for telemarketing practices, places greater restrictions on the use of automated telephone equipment, and requires companies that make telephone solicitations to maintain do-not-call lists.

The TCPA prescribes penalties for violating such rules. For example, a subscriber may sue for $500 for each violation or recover damages, seek an injunction, or sue for both. In cases of a willful violation of the TCPA, subscribers can claim treble damages for each instance.