Entering a lawsuit can be intimidating. If you have no experience with legal matters or with working with a lawyer, you may be hesitant to pursue legal actions. When this happens you could miss out on the justice that is owed to you. When you have a knowledgeable legal team on your side, you can embark on legal actions with confidence.

One of the best ways to increase your confidence is to start educating yourself on different legal terms and learning how different types of compensation work.

Punitive damages are often an important part of a lawsuit. This guide will help you to better understand how punitive damages work, and what damages you should attempt to recover during your lawsuit. Let’s dive right in to learn more.

Understanding Damages

The first step in this learning process is to understand exactly what punitive damages are, and to understand when you are entitled to them.

The term damages are used to refer to monetary compensation that an individual is requesting to be paid to them. Compensatory damages are intended to compensate the plaintiff for their pain, suffering, and injuries. The defendant is accused of causing these problems and so, under certain laws, they are held accountable and liable for this type of compensation. In addition to compensatory damages, in certain types of cases, a plaintiff can also attempt to collect punitive damages.

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Understanding Punitive Damages

Punitive damages are a distinct group of damages that may be laid out in your lawsuit. Punitive damages are designed to do a few things.

Punish behavior- When particularly shameful or targeted behavior was part of the crime, punitive damages are sometimes collected to specifically punish the behavior. This is not just aimed to attempt to compensate the plaintiff for what was lost but also goes one step further to punish the defendant for their behavior. The theory is that the more something hurts financially, the better the lesson would be learned concerning the crime or behavior.

Setting an example- Another reason why punitive damages may become part of a lawsuit is in cases in which the court wishes to set a strong example to the defendant. It is intended to set an example to the defendant so that they are not encouraged to ever engage in this type of behavior again. It is also often the hope of the court to discourage others from engaging in the same type of behavior. The justice system has found that financial loss is often an effective deterrent for illegal behavior. In cases in which the court wishes to set an example, punitive damages can sometimes be up to 10 times other damages.

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Origination of Punitive Damages

Modern justice systems cannot lay claim to the invention of punitive damages. Although this is now a common type of legal proceeding, the first punitive damages recorded are actually found in the book of Exodus in the Bible. Punitive damages were a favorite type of justice in early cultures and societies. Some of the earliest recorded legal systems mention the concept of, “An eye for an eye.” This is a very basic system of punitive damages. If you had ever wondered where that term came from, it was discovered as part of an ancient legal system known as “The Code of Hammurabi.” The ancient laws of the Hebrews, fashioned around the Mosaic Law, also featured a similar model.  

In ancient times, punitive damages tended to be of a more physical sort. Physical punishments were inflicted, or individuals were required to work off their crimes in servitude. As cultures became more civilized, it became common for punitive damages to take on a more financial nature.

In the early days of America, punitive damages could be quite small. As time went on, punitive damages are increased. The first truly large scale punitive damages was awarded in America took place in the case of Harmsen VS Smith. This was a security fraud class action suit. During this case, a federal jury decided that $14,750,000 would be sufficient to teach a lesson.

Who Gets The Money?

Courts make it a point to note that punitive damages are meant to punish the criminal, not necessarily to reward the victim. However, punitive damages do go to the plaintiff in the case.

Punitive damages are not intended to necessarily reward the plaintiff, but they do place the plaintiff in a superior position following their legal battle. This can sometimes help to recover from the trauma of the event and the legal proceedings.

How Are Punitive Damages Decided?

There are guidelines that can help a jury or judge determine how much punitive damages should be awarded. These guidelines are based on the Book of Approved Jury Instructions.

Severity of Reprehensible Conduct- The first factor that will be examined in a case in which punitive damages are considered will be the behavior itself. Jurors must ask themselves, “Were these actions egregious? Were they reprehensible enough to require the awarding of punitive damages in the first place?”

Proportion to the Defendant’s Wealth- Punitive damages are intended to punish bad behavior. In order for the punishment to be meaningful, the punitive damages must first be realistic in comparison to the individual’s wealth. If punitive damages are set at an unrealistic amount, that could never be paid, then the pain of the punishment will not be felt. A more wealthy defendant would have punitive damages set at a much higher rate than someone with a smaller net worth. If the amount is so small that it will not impact the defendant at all, then the lesson will not be learned.

Level of Harm- Another factor that must be considered is the level of harm that was inflicted on the plaintiff. In order to determine this, the jury must evaluate the level of injury or trauma that the incident might cause. Sometimes a psychologist, a medical doctor, or other professionals will be consulted in order to evaluate this accurately.

As it pertains to most personal injury claims, it is often the case that a defendant acted with negligence, rather than with malicious intent or complete disregard for life or limb. This is considered an important factor when deciding punitive damages in a personal injury case.

If you are currently embarking on a personal injury case, it is very important to discuss these details with a personal injury lawyer. These professionals will be able to help you understand how these factors will affect any punitive damages in your case.

Can I Get Punitive Damages In A Personal Injury Case?

  • Punitive damages are not often awarded in personal injury cases. There are laws in place that actually restrict punitive damages in these types of cases. Specifically, punitive damages are restricted in cases in which the defendant acted:
  • Fraudulently
  • Intentionally
  • Willfully and wantonly

The reason why punitive damages are restricted is that personal injury cases are almost always an issue of negligence, not fraud, intent, or willful wantonness. When fraud, intent, or willful wantonness are believed to be present, it often shifts the case into a different category. Usually, this would be considered a criminal case, rather than personal injury.

There are exceptions, though. There can be cases in which the level of negligence is so great that it inflicts, “a highly unreasonable risk of harm upon others with conscious disregard for life.” When this can be proven, punitive damages could play a part in a personal injury case.

One such example would be LeSanche v. Troy. During this personal injury lawsuit which took place in Illinois in 2017. This was a multi-vehicle accident. The accident which was caused by Troy had catastrophic consequences. Witnesses at the scene claimed he threw something over the guardrail before police arrived. It was later proven that he had discarded bottles containing marijuana. A drug test also later revealed three different classes of drugs to be in his system at the time of the accident.

It was determined in this personal injury case that Troy acted willfully and wantonly by choosing to operate a vehicle while under the influence of substances. LeSanche was awarded substantial compensation, including punitive damages.

You should note that punitive damages are only awarded in special cases in which there is evidence of extreme behavior.

Another famous example would be the McDonald’s coffee case. During this 1994 case, Stella Liebeck, sued the fast food chain for the burns she received after spilling a cup of McDonald’s coffee on her lap. The severe burns resulted in an 8 day stay in the hospital and skin grafts.

Liebeck’s legal team was able to prove that at the time McDonald’s was serving coffee at 180-190 degrees F. This was far hotter than any other establishment standard. It was not difficult to establish that these above normal temps were putting customers at extreme risk and Liebeck was the proof. Although the two parties eventually settled for a “confidential” amount,  the proposed punitive damages were set at 2.4 million, a large amount for a personal injury case. This particular case resulted in large punitive damage estimates due to the fact that McDonald’s refused for some time to settle with Ms. Liebeck suggesting that $800 was sufficient for her injuries.

What Are Damages Fulfilled And How Does It Affect Punitive Damages?

Damages fulfilled is a term used to describe the damages already established by the court. In order to even qualify for punitive damages, the court must have already established the award of other damages.

In essence, punitive damages will not be awarded on their own. Punitive damages are always awarded in coincidence with other damages. Punitive damages must also be awarded last.

What About Malicious Intent?

As mentioned earlier, in most personal injury cases, a defendant is found to have acted in negligence. Negligence is not intentional or malicious. Punitive damages are usually not awarded when there is no evidence of malicious intent. In order for punitive damages to be awarded, it is necessary to prove the malicious intent of the defendant. Most personal injury cases are a result of an accident. Accidents, but nature, are not the result of any kind of intent.

What About Direct Harm?

In some instances, a plaintiff may be awarded punitive if they were directly harmed by the actions of the defendant. This is called direct harm.

How Much Can You Get From Punitive Damages?

There is no set system to determine how much punitive damages will be. Each case is unique and each individual involved is unique. Courts try to determine punitive damages by evaluating the case, and setting damages at a size that is proportional to the damages that the plaintiff suffered. The legal community works together to ensure that punitive damages are not set at ridiculous amounts. The legal community also works together to ensure that punitive damages are not unconstitutional.

The rule is a 10:1 ratio. Beyond this 10:1 ratio punitive damages are considered unconstitutional. The 10:1 ratio is applied by evaluating the initial award and then ensuring that punitive damages do not exceed 10 times that amount. This helps to set a cap on the amount of punitive damages that can be awarded.

What Are Some Common Cases That Award Punitive Damages?

Malpractice- Malpractice cases are a common type of case that may include punitive damages. Malpractice cases must have proof of an extreme level of negligence in order to be awarded punitive damages. There are no set rules for what is defined as extreme negligence. Each case is evaluated on its own individual basis.

Some types of extreme negligence in a malpractice case could include performing the wrong type of surgery on the wrong patient, leaving surgical equipment inside a patient, and other extreme situations.

Dangerous conduct- When dangerous conduct can be proven that is another situation in which punitive damages might be awarded. Dangerous conduct would be described as anything that exposes the public to a high risk of potential harm. An example might be pulling out a fire arm in a crowded store, or making bomb threats at a large gathering.

Disregard for Law- When a defendant shows a blatant disregard for the law in their negligent actions, punitive damages could be awarded. An example of this might be if someone drives at a significant speed. The court will need to evaluate the circumstances on an individual basis, however, to determine if there was indeed disregard for the law.

What About Small Claims Cases?

Usually, small claims cases will not include punitive damages. There are no rules expressly forbidding this, but many small claims cases just do not fit other qualifying criteria for punitive damages.

As with most areas of law, there are exceptions. One exception would be an employer who does not pay wages owed to an employee. Punitive damages can be used to set an example and to discourage this behavior from being repeated in the future.

Will Auto Insurance Pay For Punitive Damages?

Vehicle accidents are a common type of personal injury case. Most people rely on their auto insurance policy to pay for any type of expenses that might result from an accident in which they are to blame. In most cases, your policy will pay, but if it can be proven that you were engaging in unsafe behaviors, for instance, talking on your phone, when the accident took place, then it is very unlikely that the insurance company will be willing to pay on your behalf.

This is yet another important reason why you should never engage in any type of risky behavior while driving. It could cost you in more ways than one.

How Often Are Punitive Damages Paid?

Many people are under the impression that punitive damages are always a part of any lawsuit. This is simply not the case. In fact, data shows that punitive damages are actually only requested about 10% of the time.

Lawyers do not often advise their clients to seek punitive damages, either. This is a misconception that many people hold. A knowledgeable legal team will evaluate a case carefully to establish whether or not it qualifies for punitive damages. If the case does not qualify for such compensation, it will not be recommended. Remember, most personal injury cases will not result in punitive damages. It is safe to say that punitive damages are actually pretty rare.

Is There A Growing Number of Punitive Damages?

No,  the past four decades have not shown any significant increase in punitive damages or in the frequency with which they are awarded.

Limits On Punitive Damages

After a jury or a court has decided that a plaintiff should be awarded punitive damages, they must then set the amount to be awarded. To set the amount they will consider a few things:

  • Reprehensibility- How reprehensible was the behavior or conduct? The plaintiff’s vulnerability in this respect will also be considered, as well as the duration and frequency of the behavior. They will also take into consideration the type of injury or harm that was done. Was it economic, physical, emotional, or some other type of harm?
  • Amount- They will also consider what amount of money would actually punish the defendant. This will be determined by the defendant’s known wealth. The individual’s net worth is usually sufficient to help determine this factor.

There are legal limits set on how punitive damages can be awarded and how much. Under the 24th amendment of the US Constitution, the Due Process Clause imposes limits on punitive damage awards. These amounts are not outlined in dollar amounts but rather limited using a flexible factor analysis. One main factor is the ratio of the punitive damages to the actual damages. Furthermore, the Supreme Court has also set limitations citing that, “In practice few awards exceeding a single digit ratio will satisfy due process,” and that punitive damages exceeding four times the compensatory damages is improper.

This type of compensation does serve an important purpose. However, the type of purpose that it serves is rarely applicable to personal injury lawsuits.

The best way to fully understand how punitive damages may affect or play a part in your personal injury lawsuit, is to consult with a personal injury lawyer. These individuals will be able to give you the legal advice you need concerning your particular case.

When Should I Call A Lawyer?

Even if your case will not qualify for punitive damages, you will need to work alongside a lawyer to ensure that your case is handled properly. Personal injury cases can often leave the plaintiff without justice or proper compensation.

You should call a lawyer if you have been injured due to someone else’s negligence.

You should also call a lawyer if you have been injured and the other party is requesting that you settle out of court. Although many cases can be settled out of court, it is imperative that you have a legal professional on your side to ensure that you are receiving fair compensation according to the law.

It can be very difficult to sift through all of the evidence that might be needed for your case. In addition to this, there are very specific documents and paper work that needs to be submitted to the court in a specific timeline. A lawyer will be well rehearsed on how to get all of this done on your behalf.

Many people miss out on the justice and compensation they deserve, simply because they do not know all of the steps necessary to have their case filed in court properly.

Working with a lawyer will give you a necessary advantage when it comes to personal injury cases.

Will I Be Awarded Punitive Damages?

It is unlikely that you will be awarded punitive damages if you are filing a personal injury case. However, only a personal injury lawyer will be able to determine that for sure.

If you have questions concerning personal injury, compensation, and punitive damages, you can contact a local lawyer today. Many lawyers will offer a free consultation to help answer your initial questions.