What Are Punitive Damages and When Can You Ask for Them?
Watching any one of the legal-based dramas on TV, one would assume that every personal injury case involves punitive damages, which the plaintiff always wins in staggering amounts. While these depictions make for good TV, it is not so simple in real life. Generally, damages serve as monetary compensation for an injured party that is intended to put the person back in the place he/she was before the injury occurred. Compensatory damages stem from the natural and direct consequences of the wrongful acts of the defendant. These consequences can create both financial and nonfinancial injury, and include things like physical impairment, pain and suffering, lost wages and medical expenses. Punitive damages, on the other hand, are intended to punish the wrongdoer and deter similar conduct by others. Typically, the conduct must appear to be wanton, malicious or willful in order for a court to consider awarding this type of recovery. A recent news story about a plane crash near Tampa that killed a father and daughter illustrates an example of a case where punitive damages may be appropriate. The father was flying his daughter and her friend on a spring break trip and crashed after running out of fuel and becoming incapacitated from cocaine use. The daughter’s friend survived, and her family would likely have a case that warranted punitive damages since he took cocaine knowing the safety of the two teenagers was in his hands.
Making a Claim for Punitive Damages
First, there must be a reasonable basis before a court will issue punitive damages, which requires the court to find the defendant engaged in intentional misconduct or gross negligence. Intentional misconduct means the defendant knew the conduct was wrong and the likelihood of injury was high but still decided to going forward anyway. Gross negligence occurs when a defendant’s action was so reckless or lacking in care that it resulted in a deliberate disregard for the life and safety of others.
Limits on Punitive Damages Awards
Generally, punitive damages awards are capped at three times the amount of compensatory damages awarded to each claimant or $500,000. However, courts do have the authority to lower the amount of punitive damages awarded by a jury if the award seems unreasonable. Further, unless a court finds a punitive damages award was insufficient to punish the defendant, a plaintiff cannot ask for punitive damages in subsequent lawsuits if they were awarded it in an earlier case based on the same injury.
Florida law does have exceptions to the proof requirements needed to justify punitive damages in cases involving child abuse, elder abuse, abuse of the developmentally disabled and intoxication. This means that, once a plaintiff proves the abuse or intoxication caused the injury, punitive damages are permissible. This is a much lower burden of proof because the nature of these acts calls for punishment of the wrongdoer. Additionally, in cases where someone was injured due to the impairment of the defendant by alcohol or drugs, there is no limitation on the amount of the punitive damages award.
Contact a Personal Injury Lawyer
Suffering an injury due to the negligent act of someone else is not an easy situation to accept, but working with experienced personal injury lawyers to recover monetary compensation for the injuries will at least be step in the direction of full recovery. The lawyers at Pita Weber Del Prado, in Miami, are available to evaluate your case and answer questions about your legal right to compensation. Contact us to schedule a free consultation today.