You might be familiar with the term "punitive damages" in the context of high-profile lawsuits. But when a personal injury case proceeds to trial, punitive damages are awarded in a very small percentage of cases. The defendant’s behavior must be especially outrageous or reprehensible in order for these kinds of damages to be warranted. In this article we'll explain what punitive damages are and when they might be justified in a personal injury case.
In the realm of personal injury law, damages are usually awarded to compensate an injured person for the harm caused by the defendant's actions. 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, for his medical expenses, and for his non-economic damages like "pain and suffering." 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.
Learn more about damages in a personal injury case.
Unlike regular (or "compensatory") damages like those Tom received in our example above, punitive damages are meant to punish the defendant, and are not directly tied to a tangible injury. They're not technically meant to compensate the plaintiff for a specific loss—although in any kind of personal injury case where they're awarded, the plaintiff is the one who ends up receiving punitive damages from the defendant.
So, when will punitive damages be possible? In many states, an award of punitive damages requires a showing of intentional misconduct. Other states require a defendant to act with recklessness, malice or deceit. In many states, "gross negligence" is a common factor said to justify punitive damages.
Gross negligence is usually defined as conduct that is reckless and that constitutes a conscious disregard or indifference to another’s safety 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. But let's say a building inspector informed the business that the roof must be fixed due to its dangerous condition, and the business was ordered to keep that part of the building closed 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 customers' safety.
In another example, Bob, a skiing instructor, fails to check the ski poles he gives to a student. When the pole cracks, the student suffers a painful shoulder injury. Bob does not stop class, and instead forces the injured student to wait until class is over to seek medical help. The waiting period aggravates a posterior labral tear. Bob might be liable for gross negligence.
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.
Gross Negligence and Waivers. One reason that gross negligence is sometimes claimed is that the injured person may have waived any rights to hold the defendant liable for ordinary negligence. For example, a person taking a sky diving class may have signed a waiver promising not to sue over the school’s negligence. However, most states will not enforce a waiver promising not to sue over gross negligence, so that cause of action is typically alleged in personal injury cases where a waiver is at issue.
Some states, like Florida, place limitations or "caps" on punitive damages awards. Florida does not allow a punitive damages award to exceed three times the amount of the award of the plaintiff's 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.
There must be a reasonable basis in order 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.
For information tailored to your situation, including whether or not punitive damages might be warranted in your personal injury case, talk to an attorney. Get tips on finding the right personal injury lawyer for you and your case.