What Are Punitive Damages?
There are a variety of damages that can be awarded in a personal injury lawsuit. While most are meant to compensate the plaintiff for damages they have suffered as a result of their injury, there are extra damages that can be awarded when a defendant’s behavior is determined to be especially egregious. These are called punitive, or exemplary, damages.
So what are exemplary damages? They are damages that exceed simple compensation for the client and are awarded to punish the defendant. Whether punitive damages apply to your personal injury claim will be dependent on several factors.
What’s the Difference Between Punitive Damages and Compensatory Damages?
Compensatory damages, also called actual damages, are at the center of every personal injury claim. In short, these are money awarded to a plaintiff to compensate for damages, injuries, and other losses that have occurred as a result of the negligence of another party.
Compensatory damages can include nearly anything. In personal injury cases, we often see compensatory damages like medical bills, lost wages, reduced earning capacity, pain and suffering, and mental distress. The idea is to collect any damages necessary to “make the plaintiff whole,” even if those damages do not necessarily have a predetermined dollar amount tied to them.
Punitive damages, on the other hand, are not meant to give the plaintiff back something that was lost. Instead, they are meant to punish the defendant for their conduct as well as deter similar conduct from others. They serve as an example to society that the behavior of the defendant will not be tolerated, hence the label “exemplary damages.”
When Are Punitive Damages Awarded?
Punitive damages are awarded when a defendant acts in an especially reckless or negligent way. However, there are certain legal criteria that must be met before a plaintiff can receive punitive damages.
First, the plaintiff must demonstrate that actual damages occurred. As mentioned above, “actual damages” is just another name for compensatory damages like medical bills, pain and suffering, and lost wages. If no compensatory damages are awarded, then punitive damages cannot occur.
Second, the plaintiff must demonstrate the defendant acted with gross negligence. Gross negligence means:
- The defendant behaved or conducted themselves in a way that a reasonable person in the same situation would have known to involve an extreme degree of risk.
- The defendant knew of the risk but acted with disregard.
With gross negligence is established and compensatory damages are demonstrated, the plaintiff is able to pursue punitive damages.
What Are Examples of Punitive Damages?
One of the most common types of cases to result in punitive damages are awarded is drunk driving accidents. When a drunk driving accident occurs, the plaintiff is able to argue that a reasonable person understands the extreme degree of risk drunk driving involves and that the drunk driver got behind the wheel despite being aware of these risks. If the plaintiff suffered an injury as a result, physical or otherwise, they can be awarded punitive damages.
Other instances in which punitive damages can be awarded are:
- Distracted driving accidents
- Accidents resulting from street racing
- Accidents caused by road rage
- Truck accidents in which the truck driver violated state or federal regulations
- Workplace accidents where OSHA violations occurred
Why You Need an Experienced Attorney to Secure Punitive Damages
There is one more thing to consider when seeking punitive damages. Because punitive damages require gross negligence to have occurred, they also require a stricter burden of proof than compensatory damages.
Most civil lawsuits require that the jury rules on a “preponderance of evidence.” This simply means that a jury must find the plaintiff’s claim more credible than the defendant’s. If the jury determines the plaintiff’s claims are 51% credible and the defendant’s are 49% credible, the burden of proof is met. This is true for cases involving ordinary negligence.
Gross negligence, however, requires “clear and convincing evidence” to be proven. This means that the plaintiff must prove their allegations and evidence are highly and substantially more likely to be true than untrue. While not quite as stringent as proving a case “beyond a reasonable doubt,” it does require an experienced attorney to demonstrate gross negligence properly.
I Believe I’m Entitled to Punitive Damages. What Do I Do Now?
If you believe your accident or injury entitles you to punitive damages, call a personal injury attorney immediately. Thomas J. Henry Law, PLLC has attorneys across Texas ready to hear your claim. We have represented clients across the U.S. and have the experience and resources to take on the most complex cases and the largest defendants.
Call now to speak with a personal injury attorney near you. We are available 24/7, nights and weekends, and we offer FREE case consultations to injured victims.