What are Punitive Damages in a Personal Injury Case?
In personal injury cases, there are two types of damages that can be awarded to the plaintiff. The first kind is referred to as compensatory damages. These are meant to restore the victim to a financial state that would have been equivalent to never having suffered the injury in the first place. Compensatory damages often take pain and suffering of an injury victim into account as well.
The second type of damages are known as punitive damages. These damages are awarded to victims of injuries or property damage where the responsible party has acted in a way that is egregious or intentional. The main purpose of punitive damages is, as the name implies, to punish the offender for grossly negligent or intentional behavior that rises to the level of malfeasance. Secondarily, punitive damages may be imposed so as to discourage other parties from similarly antisocial acts in the future.
While most cases will not meet the criteria to seek punitive damages, it is important to know when seeking them may be appropriate. Whereas compensatory damages are normally limited to covering reasonable medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering, punitive damages can often run far higher. Most states impose a cap on punitive damages of three times the compensatory amount. However, some states, such as Arizona, may allow punitive damages of up to nine times the compensatory amount to be awarded in rare cases.
When can punitive damages be awarded, and when is winning them likely?
The large majority of personal injury cases arise from circumstances that are either partially or mostly out of the control of both the aggrieved party and the person responsible. In other words, the majority of circumstances giving rise to personal injury cases can reasonably be described as accidents.
In most cases, bona fide accidents, even where the responsible party is clearly at fault, fall short of grossly negligent or intentional behavior. This means that, while significant compensatory damages may be awarded, most personal injury clients will not be eligible for punitive damages. It takes a much higher state of recklessness.
But a significant number of cases do meet the criteria for punitive damages to be sought. Each state has different criteria and standards of proof that must be met in order for plaintiffs to petition the court for punitive damages. Generally speaking, the plaintiff must show that the responsible party was acting with some version of mens rea, a criminal mind or evil intent. In the state of Arizona, the actual standard is called an evil mind. In Nevada it is blatant disregard of the safety of others. Cases where the at fault has a blatant disregard for the safety of others rises to the level of punitive damages. These are cases such as road rage, drunk or impaired driving, distracted cell phone use of the at fault party or traveling at reckless speeds, or erratic dangerous driving rise to the level of blatant disregard and punitive damages.
In plain language, this closely approximates the concepts of gross negligence or intentional malfeasance. And the standard of proof that must be used to demonstrate this intentional malfeasance is usually described as being clear and convincing evidence or some variation thereof. This is less rigorous than the beyond a reasonable doubt standard that is used in criminal cases but higher than the preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not) standard that is often used in civil proceedings.
Seeking and winning punitive damages is Difficult, but it can be done
Our law firm operates in the states of Arizona and Nevada, both of which are states that allow for the awarding of punitive damages in the case of intentional malfeasance or gross negligence.
While the large majority of the cases that we handle do not involve acts egregious enough to qualify our client to petition for punitive damages, we have still been able to seek and win such damages on behalf of our clients hundreds of times over the years. And these awards have often been for life-changing sums.
There are no hard and fast rules for determining when punitive damages may be sought. But looking at a concrete example may help to clarify things.
For instance, say that a person is injured when a delivery truck runs a red light and broadsides them. That would be negligence. However, It is later discovered that the driver of the work vehicle was distracted by using his cell phone and texting could very well rise to the level of reckless disregard.
Now, change the above scenario so that the driver is heavily intoxicated from alcohol and marijuana. Further, let’s say that the driver has a known drug and alcohol problem, has had dozens of complaints lodged against him by coworkers for dangerous behavior while drunk at work and is the company owner’s son in law, leading to strong speculation by coworkers that the owner simply refused to fire him for purely nepotistic reasons.
In this case, the negligence on the part of the business owner likely becomes gross because the eventual outcome of keeping this dangerous individual on the job was both foreseeable and a very long time coming. While this example is fictitious, we have handled hundreds of cases where similar circumstances have occurred, resulting in windfalls for our clients.
If you have been injured through gross negligence or malfeasance, call us today.
We have helped hundreds of clients recover life-changing sums by winning punitive damages. If you have been injured through gross negligence or malevolent intent, call us today. Our experienced litigators can give you the best possible chance to prevail in court.