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Punitive damages are a common law tradition in the United States, used to punish defendants in civil suits and to discourage future misconduct. However, because they have appeared more frequently in recent judgments, this has attracted more attention. Today’s major problem is no longer whether defendants should be required to pay punitive damages; the question has long been settled that such penalties are appropriate in specific circumstances, both legally and pragmatically.
Do you require assistance with a case that involves punitive damages? Call us now at (888) 997-2148 to consult with one of our experienced attorneys. We provide a free consultation with no obligations attached, so don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any questions regarding state caps or qualifying requirements.
What Are Punitive Damages, And When Do You Receive Them?
Any personal injury claim needs to address the following: Damages are a necessary aspect of every personal injury lawsuit. The majority of personal injury lawsuits focus on compensatory damages, which are meant to reimburse the claimant for the injuries caused by the defendant. Occasionally, a personal injury defendant may be able to collect both compensatory damages and punitive damages.
Punitive damages are a unique kind of compensation that may only be obtained in a few special situations. Punitive damages play an essential role in two areas:
Punitive damages are intended to penalize the defendant’s, particularly egregious actions. For further information on what sort of conduct qualifies, see “when can punitive damages be awarded?”
Set An Example
Punitive damages are sometimes known as “exemplary” damages since they also function as an example to deter the defendant from doing anything like it in the future and to prevent others from engaging in similar behavior.
The expense of defending oneself from a lawsuit might provide an excellent deterrent to the defendant, but because they are on such tremendous scales, most people will not pay attention. This is why punitive damages can be ten times greater than the original compensations paid.
Early Examples Of Punitive Damages
Punitive damages were actually quite prevalent throughout the world’s earliest legal systems, as many people believe. The Book of Exodus is the first occurrence of punitive damages in religious law.
Punitive damages have been a part of Babylonian law for almost four millennia. It was included in the Code of Hammurabi, among other things. The Hittite Laws, Hebrew Covenant Code of Mosaic Law, and Hindu Code of Manu all include it as well. Punitive damages are as old as the law itself, dating back to before the Pyramids of Giza by millennia.
Numbers By The Ages
The size of punitive damages in the United States remained quite tiny until the last half-century, as shown by the 14th amendment’s statement that punitive damages were lawful since the 19th century. What are the smallest and biggest punitive damages in terms of amount paid? The largest punitive damage award in history was only $4,500 back in the 1800s. Even considering 1998 dollars, that amounts to just over $72,000 today. The largest award took place in 2002 when a jury in Los Angeles awarded $28 billion in punitive damages against tobacco manufacturer Philip Morris.
Do Punitive Damages Go To The Plaintiff?
Punitive damages are designed to punish the defendant and serve as a deterrent. While punitive damages are intended to inflict punishment rather than provide compensation, the plaintiff will still receive some of the money awarded. Some people have complained that certain legal firms are pushy with their clients in order to increase earnings, which is one of the reasons why some companies are hesitant to hire attorneys.
However, based on our findings, we believe that the frequency of punitive damage claims is frequently overstated. Overall, punitive damages minimize the chance of future misconduct and place victims in a financial position better than they were before the event in question.
If you’re on jury duty for a case that might award punitive damages, this is your guide to determining the proper amount to impose. Of course, these are all based on the Book of Approved Jury Instructions — or BAJI, for short.
The Severity Of Reprehensible Conduct
As the main goal of punitive damages is to punish and discourage bad behavior, the first thing you should consider is how terrible the defendant has been. Is there a sufficient amount of deviance in their actions to merit the award of punitive damages at all?
Proportionate To The Defendant’s Wealth
Punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant for unlawful actions. As a result, it is critical that the amount paid to be fair and proportional to their wealth — which implies that richer individuals should pay more so that they learn their lesson and avoid similar behavior in the future. In the case of Neal v. Farmers, it was held that “the goal of deterrence will not be achieved if the defendant’s wealth allows him to accept the award with little or no hardship.”
Level Of Harm
Punitive damages should be calculated at least partly on the extent of harm, damage, or injury that the plaintiff suffered as a result of the defendant’s conduct. In the scenario of a minor injury to the plaintiff, the defendant should not be sentenced as severely as he would be if he were responsible for indifference to life and limb resulting in either or both of those losses.
Claims that the defendant acted negligently are typically inconsistent with claims that the defendant committed fraud or was intentionally malicious. A person’s negligence, on the other hand, may reach the level of “willful and wanton” conduct in which a defendant has “deliberate disregard” for others’ safety.
When Is It Appropriate To Obtain Punitive Damages?
Punitive damages are rarely if ever, awarded in personal injury claims. In fact, punitive damages are only accessible in cases where the defendant has acted:
- Intentionally; or
- Willfully and wantonly.
The allegation that the defendant was negligent, which is inconsistent with a fraudulent or purposeful claim, is the most frequent basis for personal injury claims. However, in some circumstances, a defendant’s negligence may reach the level of “willful and casual” conduct, in which a person “intentionally exposes others to a highly unreasonable risk of harm in conscious disregard of it.”
Requirements For Punitive Damages
- Other Damages Already Fulfilled
Punitive damages, alone, cannot be compensated. They must be given in conjunction with other sorts of compensation. Furthermore, while all other types of compensation must come first, punitive damages are last. These include compensatory, nominal, and restitution payments.
- Malicious Intent
To justify the award of punitive damages, a defendant must have acted in bad faith or with negligence. A court must find that the defendant has behaved maliciously, purposefully, or otherwise contributed to the harm suffered by the plaintiff.) Because of this, many accidents that result in significant damage don’t qualify for punitive damages.
- Direct Harm
Punitive damages are generally only granted if the plaintiff was actually harmed. Punitive damages may be given if an action has directly injured the plaintiff, but anything short of that will make it difficult to justify.
How Much Can Punitive Damages Be?
Punitive damages are doled out in a proportion to the actual losses suffered by the plaintiff. If punitive damages are imposed in an exorbitant amount, most attorneys would find it unconstitutional. In fact, there is a specific line that must not be exceeded when delivering punitive damages.
If the ratio is 10:1 or greater, it is considered unconstitutional. This implies that if the victim’s compensation was $100,000 in the beginning, the punitive damage award may not exceed $1 million. In reality, because several plaintiffs have requested exorbitant punitive damages, numerous jurisdictions have set a limit on the number of punitive damages that can be awarded.
Situations where Punitive Damages May Be Awarded
It’s worth noting that in medical malpractice claims, gross negligence is required to establish the grounds for punitive damages. There are no specific criteria for determining extreme carelessness, which is open to debate — and might even vary from courtroom to court.
However, there are certain cases in which the amount of negligence is clearly high enough to justify the punitive damages given. This includes making a surgical mistake or leaving a surgical instrument inside the patient’s body, resulting in damage to the plaintiff.
- Dangerous conduct
- Dangerous conduct
Anything that puts the general public at risk of harm might be classified as menacing behavior. Drawing a gun in a crowded location, for example, or making bomb jokes at a concert are examples of this.
- Disregard for law
- Disregard for law
If the defendant’s negligent behaviors showed a reckless disregard for the law — such as driving at a speed much above the limit — punitive damages might be granted to the plaintiff. There may still be some variation on a case-to-case basis, depending on the severity of the defendant’s behavior.
- Aware of Danger
- Aware of Danger
Okay, that may sound a little creative, but it does express our message. If the defendant is aware, or has reason to be, that their actions might result in someone getting hurt, yet they proceed ahead anyhow, this may qualify as a punitive damage factor.
Can Punitive Damages Be Awarded In Small Claims Cases?
In general, punitive damages are rarely granted in small claims disputes. This isn’t due to a prohibition against it, but rather because most small claims do not meet the necessary criteria. What is law, after all, if not a thick jungle of exceptions?
There are still circumstances in which a small claims lawsuit may be worthwhile for punitive compensation. Employers who do not pay the wages of an employee are examples of this. Punitive damages may be given both as a lesson to other businesses and as a warning to the defendant so that they do not repeat their wrongful conduct.
Can Auto Insurance Cover Punitive Damages?
You may believe that having auto insurance protects you from all hazards in the solar system, but this isn’t always the case. Your vehicle insurance will not help you if you are talking on your phone and get into a collision.
Are There Limits On Punitive Damages?
Once the jury has found a defendant negligent, it must determine the amount of punitive damages. To do so, it considers a number of variables, including:
- How reprehensible the defendant’s conduct was in light of:
- The degree of the defendant’s culpability; The length and frequency of the defendant’s conduct; The sort of damage caused by the defendant’s behavior (e.g., economic or physical);
As well as:
- The injury caused by the defendant’s conduct, as well as the potential for future injury; and the amount of money required to punish the defendant and serve as an example for others. On this final point, the jury may assess the defendant’s net worth to determine how much would be required to deter him or her from repeating the crime.
The jury, on the other hand, does not have unlimited power to award punitive damages. The Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment is interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court as limiting punitive damage awards. The factors that a jury considers and how they integrate those limits are difficult to pinpoint. But, following some of the criteria a jury considers is possible using these constraints, such as:
- The reprehensibility of the defendant; the ratio of punitive to compensatory damages; and how the punitive damage award compares to similar criminal penalties are all considered.
The Supreme Court has also said that, in practice, “fewer than a single-digit ratio” punitive damages will satisfy due process, and that punitive damage awards greater than four times the amount of compensatory damages “may be on the verge of unconstitutional impropriety.”
Punitive damages play an important role in the law, but they are rarely available to individuals who have been injured. When they are accessible, punitive damages are subject to constitutional restrictions. If you want to learn more about your situation or explore examples of punitive damages, please contact us.
Do I Need to Hire A Lawyer If I Need Help With Punitive Damages?
Punitive damage claims are especially difficult since they deal with the financial penalties that arise when someone is injured or killed as a result of someone else’s negligence. The restrictions and calculation methods will differ widely from one state to the next, therefore having an attorney on your side is crucial throughout the procedure. They’ll also assist in determining whether or not the necessary criteria are truly met for punitive damages to be awarded.
Contact Texas Lawyers Group Today
Do you require legal counsel for a case that involves punitive damages? Do you still have no idea what punitive damages are? To talk with one of our top-notch attorneys, give us a call at (888) 997-2148 right now. We provide a free consultation with no obligations, so please don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any questions regarding state caps or qualifying criteria.
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