Parties who cause another person harm or injury can be held financially liable for damages.
Most damages awarded in a personal injury case are compensatory damages. These damages compensate the accident victim for economic damages, such as lost wages, out-of-pocket expenses, and medical bills. An injured party may also recover non-economic damages for pain and suffering.
In some cases, non-compensatory damages may be awarded. These damages are called exemplary damages or punitive damages.
Punitive damages are not intended to compensate the plaintiff for losses in a personal injury lawsuit. Instead, these damages are generally awarded at the court’s discretion for limited reasons.
What is the Purpose of Punitive Damages in a Personal Injury Case?
The purpose of punitive damages is to deter the defendant from repeating the same conduct that led to the plaintiff’s injuries. The damages punish the defendant for his conduct.
However, punitive damages also serve another purpose: deterring other parties from engaging in similar conduct. The threat is that the court may impose a financial punishment if a party commits similar acts.
When Do Juries Award Punitive Damages in Injury Cases?
Punitive damages are only awarded in specific types of cases. Juries must find particular circumstances existed to justify punishing the defendant with a financial penalty in addition to holding the defendant liable for the victim’s damages.
Florida Statute §768.72 explains the requirements for awarding punitive damages.
There must be “clear and convincing evidence” that the defendant’s conduct was intentional or grossly negligent.
The defendant is guilty of intentional misconduct when he continues an act knowing that it could harm another person, and that act results in injury. Gross negligence is conduct that demonstrates the defendant was consciously indifferent or knowingly disregarded the safety of other individuals.
Because punitive damages “punish” defendants for their conduct, the plaintiff has a higher standard of proof for punitive damages. Proving negligence requires the plaintiff to prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence. In other words, it is more than 50 percent likely that the plaintiff’s allegations are true.
However, a clear and convincing burden of proof requires the plaintiff to prove that it is substantially more likely than not that the defendant committed the alleged conduct. Requiring a higher standard of proof protects defendants from being unjustly punished.
Furthermore, opinions from the United States Supreme Court require due process in cases involving punitive damages. Therefore, the judge must instruct the jury under what circumstances they can award punitive damages by providing a clear explanation of the law. Furthermore, the amount of punitive damages cannot be excessive.
Florida Limits Punitive Damages in Many Cases
Florida generally caps the amount of punitive damages a court may impose on a defendant for causing a personal injury. In most personal injury cases, the cap for punitive damages is calculated by multiplying the amount of compensatory damages awarded to each claimant by three. The amount cannot exceed $500,000.
However, there are exceptions to this limitation on punitive damages.
If the basis of the defendant’s intentional actions was solely a desire for financial gain, the maximum amount of punitive damages increases. The jury or judge could award up to four times the amount of compensatory damages awarded to each claimant, not to exceed $2 million.
In cases involving elder abuse, child abuse, and victims with diabilities, the amount of punitive damages awarded generally may not exceed three times the amount of compensatory damages awarded to each claimant. However, in these specific cases, the claimant may prove that punitive damages exceeding this amount are warranted.
Another exception to the cap on punitive damages includes intentional acts that cause harm. If the defendant specifically intended to cause harm to the plaintiff, there is no cap on the amount of punitive damages the court may award. The law also does not impose a cap on punitive damages in cases involving intoxicated defendants.
Examples of Cases That Might Justify an Award of Punitive Damages
The facts of a case determine whether punitive damages might be justified. Judges and juries must decide each case based on the evidence presented in court. However, examples of cases that might result in an award of punitive damages include:
- Acts of intentional violence, such as assault, murder, rape, and other injuries committed with forethought and malice.
- DUI car accidents that result in the death or injury of another person.
- A premises liability case in which the owner knew about a dangerous condition that could injure someone. However, the owner intentionally failed to correct the problem or warn people of the danger.
- Dog bite cases in which a pet owner allows a dog to roam the neighborhood knowing that the dog has attacked other pets or bitten other people.
- Companies that knowingly sell defective products that injure someone.
Even in the above cases, proving ordinary negligence does not justify punitive damages. You must prove that the defendant’s conduct was grossly negligent or intentional to receive punitive damages.
Contact A Jacksonville Personal Injury Lawyer for a Free Consultation
Accident victims deserve fair compensation for all damages caused by another party. A personal injury attorney will fight to get you the maximum value for your personal injury claim.
Even though punitive damages may not be awarded in all cases, a lawyer will evaluate all causes of action to maximize your recovery.