Can I Recover Punitive Damages in My Case?
Punitive damages are available in some personal injury cases depending on the circumstances and applicable state law. These damages penalize the liable party or parties for their bad behavior that led to the accident or incident and the victim’s injuries. These cases generally center on intentional acts or wanton recklessness.
If you call a personal injury lawyer, they can tell you if you can recover punitive damages in your case. But first, they will need to thoroughly investigate your claim.
Meanwhile, you may have many other questions about punitive damages, and below we answer many of the most frequent ones we hear.
What Are Punitive Damages?
Punitive damages, also known as exemplary damages, are the only damages not meant to pay the victim for injury-related expenses or losses. Instead, punitive damages force the liable party to pay as punishment for their actions.
Punitive damages can be difficult to obtain in most types of personal injury cases, as these accidents typically occur because of negligence: one party makes a mistake, and it causes injuries. This usually does not meet the criteria for recovering punitive damages.
Each state sets its own laws for punitive damages. They all have their own terms for the especially bad behavior necessary to recover these damages and how to receive them, usually through a decision from a judge or jury. Many states cap punitive damages even when a case meets the criteria for them. When there are no caps, they can often be several times the value of the compensatory damages in a case.
What Does It Take to Get Punitive Damages?
What it takes to show you deserve punitive damages and recover them depends on state law.
In some states, it is easier than others to show a punitive award could:
- Penalize the liable party and prevent them from acting similarly in the future
- Teach others a lesson about what could happen if you engage in similar behavior
Many states use unique terms for intentional or particularly negligent behavior as the threshold for punitive damages.
Some examples include:
- Willful misconduct
- Conscious indifference to consequences
- Reckless disregard
- Intentional misconduct
- Gross negligence
Generally, punitive damages are only available in cases where the defendant’s behavior was knowingly dangerous or truly outrageous.
They often occur in product liability cases, especially with defective medications or medical products. When a product causes harm to consumers, the company is strictly liable in most states. When they ignore the dangers and continue to sell a dangerous product, this could rise to the point of calling for a punitive award.
What Other Types of Damages Can You Recover in Negligence Cases?
Punitive damages are far from the only type of damages recoverable after one party causes another to suffer injuries, expenses, and losses. Compensatory damages are available in these cases even when punitive damages are not.
To recover money to pay for your expenses and losses, you will need to prove:
- The other party acted negligently.
- They caused the incident or accident.
- You suffered recoverable damages.
Even when they made a mistake and did not mean to cause your injuries, you have a right as a victim to hold them legally responsible for your economic and non-economic damages. That is, they will need to pay for your related expenses and losses. In many cases, they have an insurance policy that will cover these damages. These are known as liability policies. Auto and homeowners insurance both generally provide liability coverage.
Common Economic Damages
Economic damages encompass the current and future expenses and losses related to the accident. They vary from case to case because of the circumstances, what happened, and the victims’ injuries.
In a traffic accident, some common economic damages include:
- Medical bills
- Ambulance transportation and related expenses
- Lost income from the victim’s time away from work
- Reduced earning capacity if they cannot return to their job
- Miscellaneous related expenses
- Property damage costs, including vehicle repair
- Future-related expenses and losses
Except for future expenses, these damages are relatively easy to value. You need to keep a file of all your bills, receipts, estimates, and other documentation of every cent the incident and your injuries cost you.
Possible Non-Economic Damages
Non-economic damages are, by their very nature, intangible, as they have no monetary value. However, these cases assign a value. No amount of money can make your physical pain and emotional suffering disappear, but a payout for your pain and suffering damages could make it easier to move forward with your life.
In some cases, a legal claim can recover more compensation for pain and suffering than the victim’s economic expenses and losses sometimes, several times as much. You may want to work with a personal injury attorney to value these damages to prevent leaving money on the table, especially if you have never been in this situation before.
Wrongful Death Damages If Your Loved One Passed Away
When a victim dies from their personal injuries, their surviving family could recover compensation for their expenses and losses.
Laws differ from state to state, but a surviving spouse, children, or parents can often receive compensation to cover damages that include:
- Final expenses, including funeral and burial costs
- Loss of income
- Loss of services
- Intangible losses of surviving family members
Punitive damages could be available in wrongful death cases if the state law allows it. State laws limit the types of personal injury cases when victims can file for punitive damages, too. When a court awards punitive damages or a liable party includes them in a settlement offer, they are in addition to the compensatory damages in the case.
How Can a Personal Injury Attorney Help Value a Case?
Initially, valuing a personal injury case seems fairly straightforward. You identify the economic expenses and losses, gathering evidence to document them and their value.
This evidence may include:
- Medical bills
- Estimates for repairs
- Receipts for related expenses
- Income records and proof of time missed at work
Then, you must consider future expenses and losses. While an attorney can certainly manage to gather the other proof of your expenses and losses, this is where their knowledge of these cases and network of experts becomes invaluable. Putting a value on the future and ongoing effects of your injuries is not an easy task on your own.
Consulting Experts to Assess Ongoing Care Costs
Your attorney may have a network of medical experts and other resources to help you understand your prognosis, treatment plan, future needs, ongoing care costs, and how your injuries will affect your everyday life.
They can obtain your relevant medical records and work with experts to estimate your future expenses and losses. It is imperative to demand enough compensation to cover these costs since you cannot come back and ask for more money later.
How Your Lawyer May Calculate Your Non-Economic Damages?
Once your attorney has an estimated range for your economic damages, they can value your non-economic losses. There are non-economic damages in every liability claim since even minor injuries cause pain and suffering. This is often the most disputed part of a payout.
Non-economic losses are intangible by nature and could consider factors such as:
- Your physical suffering
- Emotional pain
- Reduced quality of life
- Loss of enjoyment in activities
- How your injuries affect your spouse
In short, your attorney can use their experience and knowledge and the circumstances of your case to value your non-economic losses. This is not something that most injury victims without any legal experience could do accurately on their own. The lawyer can also defend their valuation and demand fair compensation based on it during settlement negotiations.
If punitive damages are possible, your attorney may likely recommend taking the case to trial. Filing a lawsuit allows the case to go before a judge and/or jury equipped to rule on punitive damages. There is no way to value possible punitive damages in a case. The court awards them. Other similar cases could inform the amount awarded, but this is not always true. This is one reason appeals of punitive damages are common.
Seeking Punitive Damages With an Attorney
If you believe you could qualify to recover punitive damages in your case, you will want to work with a lawyer familiar with this process. These cases generally need to go to trial, and you do not want to represent yourself. There is very specific evidence necessary to win this type of compensation in these cases, and it differs from state to state.
In addition, it is necessary to handle legal paperwork and the legal process correctly. A lawyer can do these tasks while still letting you focus on your physical recovery. When punitive damages might be available, you need stronger evidence to show the defendant not only acted negligently but also with a clear disregard for your safety and possibly the safety of others.
Your lawyer can determine, based on the circumstances, if you could qualify to recover punitive damages and what you need to do to receive them. This will depend on state law, but it generally includes providing evidence to show the at-fault party acted with more than mere negligence.
This could include:
- Showing a history of similar behavior, such as a drunk driver with repeated accidents
- Proving they knew about the dangers but continued anyway
- Documenting unreasonable and outrageous behavior
- Proof that a company ignored a product defect
- Showing a drug company covered up a major side effect
If You Go to Trial
While most personal injury cases settle outside of court, juries generally award punitive damages. These cases usually need to go to trial. There are several steps to navigate between filing the initial lawsuit and representing a victim in court.
Your attorney can handle these and protect your rights throughout the process, such as:
- Preparing and filing the complaint
- Serving the defendant
- Filing any necessary pre-trial motions
- Discovery, which includes interrogatories, depositions, and other evidence gathering
- Continued settlement negotiations
- Mediation, as required by some courts
- Jury selection
Discuss your options for punitive damages with an attorney before you file your claim, if possible. There are strict state laws, limits, and caps on these damages. In some states, you cannot ask for punitive damages in certain types of cases. In others, it is very difficult to show the defendant’s behavior meets the criteria for punitive damages. This is why they are much more likely in some types of cases than others.
Cases That May Call for Punitive Damages
Punitive damages may be more common in these types of cases:
- Drunk or drugged driving cases
- Premises liability cases
- Product liability matters
- Criminal assault, rape, or murder
- Other intentional acts
- Medical malpractice
- Mass torts and multidistrict litigation
When punitive damages are available, the jury determines the value based on the defendant’s bad behavior, rather than the severity of injuries they caused or the expenses the victim had to pay.
Speak to an Attorney About Punitive Damages in Your Case
If you have a personal injury case and wonder if punitive damages are available, speak with an attorney near you as soon as possible. Recovering punitive damages requires strong evidence, and it often disappears quickly after an injury accident. An attorney can assess your case, develop your claim, and help you understand the damages potentially available to you.
Many provide free consultations and operate on a contingency, meaning they won’t take a fee unless they recover compensation for you. You can contact an attorney’s office today to learn more about your rights and options for free.