The general public is probably familiar with the term “punitive damages” due to high-profile jury verdicts. However, where a case proceeds to trial, punitive damages are awarded in a very small percentage of injury cases. In order to be awarded punitive damages, the defendant’s behavior must be especially reprehensible and deserving of punishment.
In this article we'll explain what punitive damages are and when they might be awarded in a personal injury case.
Damages are generally awarded to compensate an injured person for the harm caused by the defendant’s actions. There are a number of different types of compensation for an injury, including compensation for physical pain and suffering, physical impairment, mental anguish, loss wages, and medical expenses.
(See Alllaw's section on Personal Injury Damages for more information.)
For example, suppose Tom was injured in a car accident where the other driver (Mark) was at fault. Tom can recover damages for permanent lost mobility in his arm, for missing two months of work, and for his medical expenses. Tom’s damages would be awarded based on the money he lost as a result of Mark’s actions, and based on the negative impact the accident has had on his life.
Unlike regular damages, punitive damages are meant to punish and are not directly tied to a tangible injury. They're not technically meant to compensate the plaintiff for a specific loss, although the plaintiff is the one who ends up receiving punitive damages from the defendant.
So, when will punitive damages be possible? In many states, a finding of punitive damages requires intentional misconduct or gross negligence. Other states require a defendant to act with recklessness, malice or deceit. Punitive damages can be awarded in most cases, but are generally not included in a breach of contract case.
Gross Negligence. Gross negligence is defined as conduct that is reckless and constitutes a conscious disregard or indifference to other’s safety, life, or rights. While ordinary negligence involves the violation of a general duty to act with reasonable care, with gross negligence there is an added element of recklessness. For example, a business may be liable for negligence for failing to fix an old roof that later collapses and hurts customers. However, let's say that a building inspector informed the business that the roof must be fixed due to its dangerous condition, and the business was ordered not to keep that part of the building open to the public in the meantime. The business ignores this mandate, and the roof collapses three months later, injuring customers. In that case, the business may be liable for gross negligence. The business knew of the roof’s condition and consciously disregarded its customer’s safety.
It's important to note that, where there is gross negligence, governmental entities and employees may lose their otherwise generally applicable immunity from liability for personal injury claims.
Rationale for Punitive Damages. Punitive damages are meant to punish and to deter similar wrongful or repugnant conduct.
In the car accident example above, suppose that Mark intentionally sideswiped Tom’s car after he thought that Tom cut him off on the highway. Mark engaged in intentional misconduct and purposely hit Tom’s car. Tom should be awarded damages to compensate him for his injuries. Also, Tom would have a good claim for punitive damages. Tom can argue that Mark should be punished for intentionally causing his injuries and should be punished to deter other people from acting in the same dangerous manner.
Limitations on Punitive Damages. Some states like Florida place limitations or “caps” on punitive damages awards. Florida does not allow a punitive damage award to exceed three times the amount of the award of compensatory damages or $500,000, whichever is higher. Check the law in your state or talk to an attorney to find out whether such caps are in place where you live.
Sanctions for Lack of Reasonable Basis. There must be a reasonable basis for an injured person to seek punitive damages in a personal injury lawsuit. Where there is limited or no evidence of intentional misconduct, gross negligence, or deceit, a court can levy monetary sanctions on the injured person and his or her attorney for seeking punitive damages. By requiring a reasonable basis for asking for these kinds of compensation, courts are trying to discourage frivolous claims for punitive damages in personal injury cases.