When a defendant is found liable, a judge or jury then determines the amount of damages owed to the plaintiff. In a civil action for personal injury, damages are normally limited to pain and suffering, and economic loss. However, depending on the severity of the defendant’s behavior, the plaintiff may also be entitled to punitive damages. This category of damages are awarded to punish the defendant’s behavior. In a criminal proceeding, the prosecuting attorney’s job is to enforce the law. If the criminal defendant is found guilty, the court will punish the defendant by handing down a sentence, usually in the form of a fine or prison term. In a tort or personal injury claim, the civil court’s primary function is to make the plaintiff whole not to punish the defendant. But when a defendant’s behavior is so egregious, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief beyond that which would make her whole.
Under Florida law, § 768.72 the “defendant may be held liable for punitive damages only if the trier of fact, based on clear and convincing evidence, finds that the defendant was personally guilty of intentional misconduct or gross negligence.” To prove that the defendant’s conduct was intentional, the plaintiff must show “that the defendant had actual knowledge of the wrongfulness of the conduct and the high probability that injury or damage to the claimant would result and, despite that knowledge, intentionally pursued that course of conduct, resulting in injury or damage.” To prove that the defendant acted with gross negligence, the plaintiff must show “that the defendant’s conduct was so reckless or wanting in care that it constituted a conscious disregard or indifference to the life, safety, or rights of persons exposed to such conduct.” One important thing to note is that this statute requires clear and convincing evidence, a higher burden of proof than the preponderance standard.
In short, a claim for punitive damages requires proof that the defendant’s behavior was willful or wanton. In most personal injury cases, the defendant is alleged to have behaved negligently, below the standard of care or required duty owed to the plaintiff. But in some cases, the defendant may have acted with complete disregard, or perhaps intentionally caused the plaintiff’s injury. When that behavior is present, the plaintiff is warranted in his pursuit of additional damages beyond that which would make him whole.
A jury recently awarded the surviving family members in a horrific car accident case $20 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages. In another recent case, a jury required two tobacco companies to each pay $12.5 million in punitive damages. Current law requires half of punitive damage awards in nursing home cases go to a state administered trust fund, but the legislature may be considering repealing this rule.
Punitive damages play an important role in civil proceedings. Plaintiffs that suffer willful or wanton conduct have recourse through punitive damages. Compensatory damages may not always capture and quantify the true cost and suffering that victims endure at the hands of reckless defendants.
Punitive damages are sought in roughly 10% of all tort trials, and are only awarded about 5% of the time when the plaintiff prevails according to Bureau of Justice Statistics. The vast majority of plaintiffs are not victims of such reckless behavior, and punitive damages are rarely awarded. Even so, each case is different, and the lawyers at Bryan W. Crews will gladly evaluate your case. Bryan W. Crews is an Orlando personal injury attorney with the expertise necessary to successfully handle your claim. If you or a family member have suffered a personal injury, call Bryan W. Crews today for a review of your case.