How Do Punitive Damages Work In A Personal Injury Case?
If you’ve been injured in an accident due to the fault of another, then you may have a right of action to sue and recover damages. Every case is different, however. In some cases, the defendant has engaged in such egregious behavior that the court sees fit to impose what are referred to as punitive damages.
Punitive damages multiply the total damages that you — the plaintiff — can potentially recover through the lawsuit. In serious accident disputes, a punitive damages award can sometimes lead to a multimillion dollar recovery.
Let’s explore some basics behind how punitive damages work.
What Are Punitive Damages
Normally, damages recovered in a personal injury dispute are compensatory in nature. In other words, they are meant to “compensate” the injured plaintiff for their losses — to put them in a position (financially) that closely approximates where they would have been had they not been involved in the accident.
Compensatory damages account for a number of losses, from medical expenses, to pain and suffering, to wage loss, and more.
Punitive damages are fundamentally different. Punitive damages are not meant to be compensatory — instead, they are meant to “punish” the defendant for engaging in extremely problematic behavior, and to discourage others in society from engaging in similar behavior.
By imposing bonus damages in the form of punitive damages, the court is thereby punishing the defendant and discouraging others in society from doing the same.
Calculating Punitive Damages
Punitive damages are calculated by multiplying the baseline compensatory damages available in the dispute. The multiplier can go as high as seven times the compensatory damages amount.
How does this work?
Suppose that you’re injured in a slip and fall accident. Your total damages are roughly equivalent to $100,000. After further investigation, your attorney discovers that the business owner knew that there was a spill on the floor of their retail store, but actively discouraged their employees from cleaning it up because they wanted to see a customer slip on it — they thought it would be “funny.”
The court finds this behavior malicious, and they decide to award punitive damages. The court decides that the punitive damages should be $800,000 (seven times the compensatory damages amount). Your total recovery would thus be $900,000.
Qualifying for Punitive Damages
Punitive damages are not available in the large majority of personal injury cases. Where they are potentially available, however, it’s important that you and your attorney push hard for a punitive damages award.
Under what circumstances are punitive damages available?
In most states, punitive damages are only available if you — the plaintiff — can show that the defendant acted maliciously, intentionally, and/or egregiously. Mere negligence is not enough to qualify for punitive damages. The defendant’s conduct must be significantly more egregious for punitive damages to be available in the case.
Recall that punitive damages are awarded as an attempt to discourage such behavior in society. As such, the behavior must be especially problematic to justify the attempt to discourage it through punitive damages.
In the car accident context, illegal street racing that led to an accident would very likely qualify for punitive damages, but mere speeding would not (unless the defendant was speeding well over the speed limit, and speeding to such an extent that they displayed a reckless disregard for human life).
Drunk driving may also qualify for punitive damages, though the circumstances have to point to particularly egregious conduct. So, for example, if the defendant was warned to stop drinking because they might endanger others, and they laughed it off and said they “don’t care,” that would likely be enough to make punitive damages available.
It’s worth noting that even if punitive damages are available, the court is not required to award them. Courts have discretion whether they will impose punitive damages. It is up to your attorney to develop a persuasive enough argument that will “win” the court over.
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