Reports | July 17, 2023 | Personal Injury
In personal injury cases, victims typically seek compensatory damages to put them back into the position they were in before their accident. Compensatory damages pay victims for losses like medical expenses, lost income, and pain and suffering. In some cases, however, you can recover punitive damages.
Courts typically award punitive damages to punish wrongdoers for particularly egregious conduct and deter others from engaging in similar conduct. In many cases, punitive damages can far exceed compensatory damages, so you will want to pursue them if you can.
Working with a personal injury lawyer is one of the best ways to get more insight into the damages you deserve after an accident. Whether it was a car accident, dog bite, or assault, you may face a wide range of financial losses due to someone else’s actions. Let your personal injury lawyer help you navigate those losses and how to obtain compensation for them.
Punitive Damages Often Have Caps
State law governs punitive damages and these laws differ from one state to the next. Punitive damage caps limit the money a plaintiff can receive in a civil lawsuit.
In many states, the cap on punitive damages depends on the amount of compensatory damages awarded or a specific dollar amount. For example, in Florida, in most cases, punitive damages cannot exceed three times the amount of compensatory damages or $500,000, whichever is greater
On the other hand, some states have taken a more flexible approach and have either higher caps or no caps at all. These states may allow the jury or judge to determine the appropriate amount of punitive damages based on the facts of the case. The absence of caps gives the courts more discretion to impose larger punitive damages when they deem it necessary.
The rationale behind these differing approaches is balancing various interests. States with strict caps argue that they help maintain consistency and fairness in the legal system by preventing excessive and arbitrary punitive damage awards. They also contend that high punitive damages can hurt businesses and the economy.
States with higher or no caps, however, emphasize the importance of preserving the power of juries and judges to assess the conduct of defendants on a case-by-case basis. They argue that certain cases may warrant substantial punitive damages to deter future misconduct, especially when dealing with corporate wrongdoing or intentional harm.
When Are Punitive Damages Awarded?
Punitive damages are uncommon in personal injury cases. As mentioned above, courts typically award punitive damages for a defendant’s particularly egregious conduct. For example, under Florida law, courts can only impose punitive damages for the defendant’s intentional misconduct or gross negligence.
Some examples of cases in which punitive damages might apply include:
- Product liability cases in which a company sold an unreasonably dangerous product and there is evidence that the company knew about the dangers the product posed
- Medical malpractice cases in which a doctor knowingly provides unnecessary treatment or prescribes risky medications for financial gain
- Cases involving intentional acts, such as violent assaults
- Cases in which a defendant’s pattern of conduct shows a disregard for the safety of others
To determine if punitive damages should apply, the court must consider all of the evidence and details of the case.
Some of the vital information that they may focus on includes:
- Did the person cause financial harm?
- Did the defendant engage in specifically aggravating circumstances?
- What is the person’s attitude towards their actions?
- Did they purposefully seek out a person to hurt in some way or for some reason?
- Did they cause significant loss?
Since these damages punish defendants and deter future misconduct, most personal injury cases don’t award them. The best way to determine whether you may obtain punitive damages is to discuss your case with an experienced attorney as soon as you can.
What Factors Are Considered When Assigning Punitive Damages?
When determining whether to award punitive damages, courts consider various factors depending on the jurisdiction and specific case. Some of the most common factors a court may consider include:
The Nature of the Defendant’s Conduct
Courts assess the defendant’s behavior and determine whether it was willful, malicious, fraudulent, oppressive, or in reckless disregard of the plaintiff’s rights. Punitive damages punish and deter particularly egregious behavior.
The Degree of Blameworthiness
Courts often consider the extent to which the defendant’s conduct was morally reprehensible or involved an intentional disregard for the rights and safety of others. The more blameworthy the conduct, the more likely you are to receive punitive damages.
Harm to the Plaintiff
The severity and extent of harm suffered by the plaintiff can factor in determining punitive damages. If the plaintiff has already recovered compensatory damages, punitive damages may further punish the defendant.
Financial Condition of the Defendant
Courts may also consider the defendant’s financial resources and ability to pay when deciding punitive damages. For example, in a claim against a large corporation, a court may award financially significant punitive damages.
Similar Cases and Precedents
Courts often examine past cases with similar circumstances and look for any precedent or guidance regarding awarding punitive damages. They consider how punitive damages applied in comparable situations to maintain consistency and fairness in the legal system.
The Likelihood of Deterring Future Misconduct
Courts may consider whether punitive damages will deter similar conduct, especially when other parties may engage in similar conduct and expose others to a risk of harm.
How can an attorney help with recovering punitive damages?
Assessing Your Case
A lawyer will evaluate the facts and circumstances of your case to determine whether punitive damages may be appropriate. They will review the evidence, applicable laws, and precedents to assess the strength of your claim for punitive damages.
To support your claim for punitive damages, your lawyer will gather evidence that demonstrates the defendant’s particularly egregious or malicious behavior. This may involve conducting investigations, obtaining witness statements, reviewing documents, and collecting any other relevant evidence.
Proving Gross Negligence or Intentional Misconduct
In most jurisdictions, punitive damages apply when the defendant’s actions exhibit an intentional disregard for the rights and safety of others or involve intentional misconduct. Your lawyer will establish that the defendant’s behavior meets these legal standards through compelling evidence and persuasive arguments.
Presenting Your Case in Court
A skilled lawyer can present your case persuasively in court, highlighting the defendant’s reprehensible conduct and justifying punitive damages. They can use their knowledge of the law and advocacy skills to convince the judge or jury to award punitive damages.
What Evidence Can You Present in Support of Punitive Damages
Getting punitive damages is an uphill battle. That said, certain evidence can make it more likely that the court will award punitive damages in your case. This evidence often goes above and beyond simply showing the defendant’s legal liability for your losses.
The evidence your lawyer may present in support of punitive damages includes:
Documentation of Intentional Misconduct
Evidence showing that the defendant intentionally engaged in misconduct or wrongful behavior can include written or electronic communications, internal memos, or documents that reveal the defendant’s knowledge of the harm they caused or their disregard for the safety and well-being of others.
Evidence illustrating the defendant’s reckless actions that can support a claim for punitive damages might include witness testimony, video recordings, photographs, or expert opinions that demonstrate the defendant’s flagrant disregard for the safety of others.
Prior Similar Conduct
Evidence of the defendant’s past misconduct, particularly if it involves similar behavior, can establish a pattern of conduct and support a claim for punitive damages. This may involve introducing prior judgments, settlements, or complaints against the defendant, as well as any disciplinary actions or regulatory sanctions.
The Defendant’s Financial Situation
The defendant’s financial resources can be relevant when pursuing punitive damages. Evidence of the defendant’s wealth, including their income, assets, or extravagant lifestyle, may demonstrate that punitive damages would be meaningful and proportionate to their ability to pay.
Attorneys can develop this type of evidence in a wide range of ways. For example, they may work closely with you to gather facts about the case and statements that the other party may have made to you. They may use witness statements to explain the party’s actions and why they occurred. Character witnesses can also shed light on the person’s ongoing lack of regard for the law. Finally, your lawyer may subpoena documents like corporate records in support of your claim.
How You Can Ruin Your Chances of Getting Punitive Damages?
There is one surefire way to destroy your chances of getting punitive damages in your personal injury case – accepting a settlement offer before talking to a lawyer. Once you accept a settlement, it is nearly impossible to obtain more compensation for the same injury. This is true even if the settlement you accepted is far below the actual value of your case.
You may be wondering how someone could accept an inadequate settlement offer after an injury causing accident. To understand how this happens, it’s important to keep in mind that insurance companies are extremely good at getting victims to settle for less than they deserve. They may act like they are helping you get your money as soon as possible, when in fact they are trying to get you to settle before you know exactly what your case is worth.
Other tactics the insurance company may use to get you to settle your case for less than you deserve include:
- Asking you for all of your medical records, trying to find anything they can use to characterize your injuries as pre-existing conditions
- Not being honest about your legal rights (for example, denying you compensation for your non-economic damages)
- Advising you that you do not need to retain a lawyer to represent you
- Starting with an unreasonably low first offer in order to make subsequent offers look better
What Should You Do if You Deserve Punitive Damages?
If you believe that you deserve punitive damages, always speak to a lawyer as soon as you can. A personal injury attorney can review your case and determine what damages you may seek, including punitive damages, and protect your rights.
Seek a free consultation with a personal injury attorney as soon as possible after an accident.