Can I Seek Punitive Damages in a Florida Personal Injury Case?
Whenever you hear about an exceptionally large jury verdict in a personal injury case–think tens of millions of dollars or more–it is usually due to a decision to award punitive damages. This is an exceptional category of damages that does not apply to every case. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of successful personal injury lawsuits involve no punitive damages of any kind.
So what exactly are punitive damages–and why they are so rare? Here is a brief overview of Florida law on this subject.
Compensatory vs. Punitive Damages
Broadly speaking, a person with a personal injury claim can ask for both compensatory and punitive damages. Compensatory damages are just what they sound like–money to compensate the victim for their losses. Compensatory damages can be further broken down into economic and non-e conomic losses. Economic losses refer to things like your medical bills and lost wages following an accident. Non-economic damages, while harder to quantify, nevertheless refer to your own pain and suffering as a result of the defendant’s negligence.
Punitive damages differ in that they are not designed to compensate the plaintiff directly. Rather, punitive damages are just what they sound like–a form of punishment. Some people describe it as a way for a jury to “send a message” to a particular defendant.
When Are Punitive Damages Available?
In strictly legal terms, however, the Florida Supreme Court has said punitive damages are only justified if either of the following conditions are present:
- The defendant engage in conduct that was fraudulent, malicious, deliberately violent or oppressive; or
- The defendant acted with such “gross negligence” as to demonstrate a wanton disregard for the rights of others.
To illustrate, let’s look at several hypothetical examples where someone is injured in a car accident:
- If the negligent driver was momentarily distracted, ran a red light, and hit another vehicle in the intersection, the victim would not be able to seek punitive damages, although they could still pursue a claim for compensatory damages.
- If the driver intentionally ran a red light with the intent of injuring the victim, then punitive damages would be available for such “deliberately violent” conduct.
- Similarly, if the driver was legally intoxicated when they ran that red light, a jury could award punitive damages based on the defendant’s gross negligence and disregard for the consequences of their drunk driving.
What Are the Limits on Punitive Damages?
Florida law does impose limits (or “caps”) on punitive damages in many cases. The basic rule is that a jury cannot award punitive damages of more than $500,000 or three times the award of compensatory damages, whichever is greater. So let’s say a jury awards $1 million in compensatory damages. Under Florida’s cap, an additional award of punitive damages could not exceed $3 million.
Different caps apply to situations where the defendant’s conduct was “motivated solely by unreasonable financial gain.” This mostly applies to cases involving product liability, where a manufacturer sold a defective or dangerous item to consumers. In these situations, the jury can award the greater of $2 million or four times the amount of compensatory damages as punitive damages. And if the plaintiff can prove the defendant acted with “specific intent” to harm them, then the punitive damage cap does not apply at all.
Speak with a South Florida Personal Injury Lawyer Today
As we have said, punitive damages are not awarded in most personal injury cases. But if you would like to learn more about this subject, and in particular whether it may apply to your own accident case, then you need to speak with a qualified Deerfield Beach car accident attorney as soon as possible. Contact the Leifer Law Firm today to schedule a consultation.