What Are Punitive Damages in a Personal Injury Case?

March 31, 2022
What Are Punitive Damages in a Personal Injury Case?

Punitive Damages May Be Awarded in Some Personal Injury Claims 

Whether it be a workplace slip and fall, a drunk driving accident, or a product liability claim, cases involving gross negligence can result in catastrophic harm to the injured party. After you've recovered enough to pay back your bills, the case may still feel unresolved if you know that the person or company could go on to treat someone else the same way they treated you. One way to rectify this in court is to make a claim for punitive damages. Punitive damages are a type of damage awarded in some personal injury cases, serving as a repercussion for the defendant. In tort law cases, punitive damages may be extracted from the party accused of negligence.

Understanding the Difference Between Exemplary and Compensatory Damages

Punitive damages fall under the category of exemplary damages; a lesser-known meaning of the word exemplary is “to serve as a warning”, and that's exactly what punitive damages are intended to do. They are typically awarded to the defendant in the form of monetary compensation.  Compensatory damages pay you back for what you're owed for medical bills, emotional distress, lost wages, or damages to your vehicle- all expenses that you have incurred or will experience in the future. They may come in the form of special damages or general damages.  The difference between these two types of damages can be summarized by saying that exemplary damages are usually about the defendant, while compensatory damages are about the plaintiff.

Types of Compensatory Damages

Special damages are essentially costs you have receipts for, meaning that they have a specific monetary value that can be verified. This type of damage might look like bills for seeing a specialist, the cost of a new car, or the price of a wheelchair ramp for your home.  General damages, on the other hand, can be more difficult to quantify; more subjective damages may take the form of emotional distress or loss of consortium. General damages can be more challenging to prove, as the “receipts” for emotional trauma could range from therapists' notes to an economic expert's interpretation of lost earning potential.

What is the Purpose of Punitive Damages in a Personal Injury Claim?

When you hear “punitive”, think “punishment.” Punitive damage claims are successful when the jury believes that the defendant requires additional deterrence, or other colleagues and companies need to understand the magnitude of punishment should they be found negligent. In some cases, the amount awarded to the plaintiff is deemed inadequate in comparison to the injury incurred, in which case punitive damages may be awarded to mitigate the discrepancy.

Demonstrating the Value of Punitive Damages in a Medical Malpractice Claim

Consider a medical malpractice lawsuit where a doctor prescribed a defective medication that was known to be harmful to infants and failed to inform the parents of the risks. The plaintiffs are parents of an infant who was given this medication for a minor condition, wound up in the NICU for 3 months, and ultimately died as a result.  As it turns out, the doctor has been giving this medication for years, even after witnessing its high mortality rate in infants. In this situation, the judge could direct the jury to consider punitive damages to make an example out of the doctor for failing to meet the standard of care The doctor will likely lose his medical license and reputation, but the damage he's done is irreparable; in this case, the punitive damages are also about providing a lesson about negligence to other doctors and acknowledging the parents' pain and suffering.

The Process of Awarding Punitive Damages in a Personal Injury Claim

Based on the evidence presented, the judge can use their discretion to allow the jury to consider imposing punitive damages. The judge, who serves as the trier of fact, must be convinced the defendant either knowingly condoned the negligence or perpetrated it. In most cases, the defendant isn't the drunk driver who caused harm or the doctor who missed a diagnosis, it's the insurance company backing them up. The judge or jury will then come to a decision about the type and level of damages they believe should be awarded. This will depend on several variables, like the degree of negligence exhibited by the defendant and the severity and permanence of the plaintiff's injuries. According to the Department of Justice, out of the 25,000 lawsuits that sought punitive damages in 2005, only about 528 plaintiffs were successful in recovering them, translating to about 2%. The average award amount was $64,000, with only about 68 cases receiving over 1 million dollars, although newer data may reveal changing trends.

How Can a Personal Injury Lawyer Help Me Settle My Lawsuit for Punitive Damages?

Punitive damages are very rare in cases that go to trial. You should focus on recuperating costs in compensatory damages, as taking on powerful defendants, like a big insurance company, has enough challenges. Most clients aren't prepared to fight a company whose only goal is to protect their profit from big payouts or future liability claims, rather than protect consumers.  This is where a quality personal injury attorney will examine the validity of your claim, gather supporting evidence, and begin establishing that the defendant owed you a duty of care and failed in this duty through their lack of consideration for your safety.  If they can directly tie the negligent act to your resulting injury, you may be compensated for any bills or other damages you have suffered. Dolman Law Group has been on the frontlines of punishing gross negligence in everything from carcinogenic firefighting foam claims to toxic baby formula lawsuits, and we can help you get the settlement you deserve. 

Contact Dolman Law Group for Help with Your Gross Negligence Claim

After someone else's negligence leaves you with an injury or property damage, your focus should be on your physical and financial recovery. However, you may feel that it is your duty to pursue punitive damages against an entity that has committed gross negligence to ensure the same thing doesn't happen to someone else. Dolman Law Group has an impressive record of successfully proving negligence claims that have made us one of Florida's leading personal injury law firms. Our clients know us to be compassionate and competent professionals who deliver on our promises. Let the qualified team at Dolman Law Group handle holding the negligent party responsible. If your case is eligible for punitive damages, we'll fight to ensure that they are held liable for their behavior. We'll stay in close contact with you through the entire process so you never feel alone, and unlike big settlement mills, we'll prioritize your needs over our bottom line. Give us a call any time at (833) 55-CRASH for auto accidents, or (727) 451-6900 for other claims. You can also send us an email on our contact us page.  

Matthew Dolman

Clearwater Personal Injury and Insurance Attorney

This article was written and reviewed by Matthew Dolman. Matt has been a practicing civil trial, personal injury, products liability, and mass tort lawyer since 2004. He has represented over 11,000 injury victims and has served as lead counsel in over 1000 lawsuits. Matt is a lifetime member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum and Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum for resolving individual cases in excess or $1 million and $2 million, respectively. He has also been selected by his colleagues as a Florida Superlawyer and as a member of Florida’s Legal Elite on multiple occasions. Further, Matt has been quoted in the media numerous times and is a sought-after speaker on a variety of legal issues and topics.

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