What Are Punitive Damages?
A personal injury lawsuit seeking punitive damages is different from other personal injury lawsuits. Most lawsuits seek to compensate the plaintiff for damages incurred because of an accident or injury. Types of damages a jury award might include reimbursement of medical bills and compensation for pain and suffering. However, punitive damages do not compensate the accident victim for losses. The purposes of punitive damages are quite different from compensating the victim.
Understanding Punitive Damages
Punitive damages are a special type of damage under tort law awarded to the plaintiff in a personal injury case. They are rarely awarded for other causes of action, such as breach of contract.
Punitive damages are a way of punishing the defendant (the party who caused the injury) for gross negligence or intentional misconduct. The damages are intended to deter the defendant from engaging in similar conduct again. Punitive damages can also serve as a deterrent for others.
The Florida Statutes require that that the plaintiff (injured person) provide “clear and convincing” evidence that the defendant is guilty of gross negligence or intentional misconduct before damages may be awarded.
The statute defines gross negligence as conduct that is so reckless or wanting in care that it constitutes a conscious disregard or indifference for other people’s safety, life, or rights.
Intentional misconduct means that the defendant knew that the conduct was wrong and that the conduct could injure someone. Nevertheless, the defendant continued with the course of action that resulted in the injury to another person.
How Often Are Punitive Damages Awarded?
Courts do not award punitive damages in many cases. The plaintiff must have “clear and convincing” evidence to prove the defendant’s actions were grossly negligent or intentional. The burden of proof is on the plaintiff to prove the case by a “greater weight of the evidence.”
Some examples of cases in which a defendant may be ordered to pay punitive damages include, but are not limited to:
Product Liability Claims
Some product liability cases could result in an award of punitive damages.
If a manufacturer intentionally conceals a defect that it knows could harm an individual, the court might impose punitive damages for intentional misconduct.
Manufacturers, distributors, designers, and sellers may be liable for defective products. A product could have a defective design or a defect in the manufacturing process. Some defective product claims are based on a failure to warn or provide adequate instructions.
Motor Vehicle Accidents
Automobile accidents are another common type of injury case that may result in a punitive damages award.
Motor vehicle accidents that can result in punitive damages include:
In many cases, the accident involves a wrongful death claim. However, the accident does not need to involve a fatality for the plaintiff to receive punitive damages.
The at-fault driver’s conduct must rise to the level of gross negligence or intentional wrongdoing. Therefore, running a red light by mistake might not rise to the level of gross negligence. However, drunk driving, acts of road rage, or excessive speed through a school zone could be subject to punitive damages depending on the facts of the case.
Medical Malpractice Claims
Medical malpractice claims are based on medical errors and medical negligence. Doctors are held to a high standard of care. When they breach the duty of care, they can be guilty of malpractice.
Not all cases of medical malpractice involve gross negligence or intentional wrongdoing. However, if a medical provider or a medical facility intentionally concealed facts that led to a person’s death or injury, the defendant could be ordered to pay punitive damages. If a doctor performed surgery while intoxicated, that could be a sufficient reason for punitive damages.
Workplace Injuries and Accidents
Florida’s workers’ compensation system covers most injuries and fatalities caused by workplace accidents. Worker’s compensation protects employers from being sued for damages caused by a job-related injury or illness.
However, employers are not entirely immune from liability in all cases.
If the employer intentionally and knowingly violated OSHA safety standards and the violation resulted in a worker’s death, the employer may be subject to punitive damages in a civil claim. Likewise, if an employer knowingly provided defective tools for workers to use and a worker was injured, the employer could be liable for punitive damages.
Other Cases That Could Result in Punitive Damages
Personal injury cases cover many different types of injury claims. Each case’s facts and circumstances must be examined individually to determine whether the defendant might be liable for punitive damages.
Other cases in which punitive damages might be awarded include, but are not limited to:
- Nursing home abuse
- Boating accidents
- Construction accidents
- Daycare negligence
- Dog bites
- Defective medical devices
The laws regarding punitive damages are complicated. In addition to statutes governing punitive damages, there is case law that governs punitive damages. For example, the United States Supreme Court has held that due process principles apply to ensure punitive damages are not grossly excessive or without merit.
An experienced personal injury lawyer can analyze your case to determine whether the facts support an award of punitive damages. An attorney can also conduct a thorough investigation to obtain the evidence needed to prove the legal elements for a punitive damages claim.
Caps on Punitive Damages in Florida Personal Injury Cases
The amount awarded for punitive damages in an injury case may be limited by law. Under Florida statutes, punitive damages cannot exceed three times the amount of compensatory damages or $500,000.
However, if the wrongful conduct was motivated solely by unreasonable financial gain, the award for punitive damages may increase to four times the amount of compensatory damages or $2 million.
There are exceptions to the limitations on punitive damages. If the jury finds that the defendant has a specific intent to harm the victim and the defendant’s conduct resulted in harm to the victim, there is no cap on punitive damages.
Other exceptions to the cap on punitive damages may apply in cases involving child abuse, elderly abuse, or abuse of a person with developmental disabilities. If the defendant was intoxicated at the time of the act, punitive damages caps might not apply.
The caps on punitive damages should in no way deter the amount of compensatory damages awarded to the plaintiff.
Call Our Florida Personal Injury Lawyer for a Free Consultation
If another party caused your injury, you could be entitled to substantial compensation for damages. Our Florida personal injury attorney analyzes your claim to access the types of damages you might be entitled to receive, including punitive damages. We fight to get you the maximum amount of compensation for your injury claim.
Contact our office today to schedule your free appointment with an attorney to discuss your case.