Is A Defendant’s Net Worth Relevant When Asking For Punitive Damages In A Personal Injury Lawsuit?
Punitive damages are not ordinarily awarded in Florida personal injury cases. By punitive damages, we mean a financial award that is meant to punish the defendant for intentional or grossly negligent acts as opposed to ordinary negligence. In other words, if someone runs a stop sign and hits your car, that type of ordinary negligence does not justify punitive damages. But if the driver ran that stop sign because they were intoxicated, that would rise to the level of “gross negligence” and you could ask a jury to award punitive damages.
Florida Appeals Court Orders New Trial on Punitive Damages in “Drugged Driving” Accident Case
One way that punitive damages differ from compensatory damages–i.e., money awarded to compensate accident victims for their injuries–is that the jury may consider the defendant’s net worth in determining the former but not the latter. This actually helps to protect the defendant as well as the plaintiff. Florida courts have long held that a jury cannot award punitive damages that are substantially equal to a defendant’s entire net worth. So both sides are allowed to present evidence as to the defendant’s assets.
Indeed, the Florida Third District Court of Appeal recently ordered a new trial on punitive damages in a personal injury case, Callari v. Winkeljohn, because the appellate court held the trial judge improperly restricted the defendant’s ability to present expert testimony as to his net worth.
Here is briefly what happened. The defendant caused a car accident in 2017 when he crossed over the centerline of a highway and struck the plaintiff’s vehicle. The plaintiff sustained serious injuries after the collision caused her vehicle to flip over. She subsequently filed her personal injury lawsuit against the defendant. In addition to compensatory damages, the plaintiff also sought punitive damages based on evidence that the defendant was under the influence of drugs–specifically, heroin–at the time of the crash.
Prior to trial, the defendant informed the plaintiff of his intention to call an expert witness who would testify as to the “plaintiff’s economic damages.” Later, the defendant amended this disclosure to state the expert would also testify as to the plaintiff’s “net worth” as it related to consideration of punitive damages. The plaintiff objected to this additional testimony as the deadline for expert witness disclosures had passed. The judge agreed with the plaintiff and said the expert could not testify as to the defendant’s net worth.
The jury ultimately returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff that included approximately $3.6 million in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages.
On appeal, the Third District said it was legal error by the trial judge to exclude the defense expert’s testimony relevant to punitive damages. Even though the defense made a late disclosure, the trial court was still required to consider whether there would be any prejudice to the plaintiff’s case by allowing the testimony. Absent such consideration, the Third District said the defendant was entitled to a new trial solely on the issue of punitive damages.
Speak with a Florida Personal Injury Lawyer Today
If you are the victim of someone else’s negligence, you have the right to seek compensation for your injuries–and in some cases, punitive damages if there was gross negligence involved. An experienced Boca Raton car accident attorney can review your case and advise you of your options. Contact Leifer & Ramirez today to schedule a free consultation with a member of our personal injury team.