Punitive damages are a type of compensation awarded in some personal injury cases. Florida laws are specific regarding what situations justify ordering the defendant to pay punitive damages to the plaintiff.
What Are Punitive Damages in a Personal Injury Case?
Most of the damages awarded to a plaintiff in a personal injury case are compensatory damages. Compensatory damages “compensate” the plaintiff for economic damages, such as lost wages, medical bills, and out-of-pocket expenses. They also compensate the plaintiff for non-economic damages, including emotional distress, physical pain, and loss of enjoyment of life.
Punitive damages do not compensate the plaintiff for any losses, even though they are paid to the plaintiff. Instead, the purpose of punitive damages is to “punish” the defendant for specific types of behavior. A punitive damages award serves to deter the defendant and other individuals from engaging in similar conduct.
What Types of Personal Injury Cases Result in an Award of Punitive Damages?
Punitive damages may be awarded in any type of personal injury case. However, the defendant’s conduct must meet the statutory requirements for awarding punitive damages.
Examples of injury claims that may justify an award of punitive damages include:
- A drunk driving accident that results in the severe injury or death of another person
- Abuse of an older adult, child, or person with disabilities
- Intentional acts of violence, including rape, murder, and assault
- A company knowingly selling defective products that cause injuries to consumers
- A dog owner who allows their pet to leave their yard knowing the dog has attacked and bitten other animals and people
- A property owner who knows about a dangerous condition on the property but fails to post warnings or correct the condition
Proving that the defendant’s conduct was negligent is not sufficient for an award of punitive damages. Instead, the defendant’s actions must meet or exceed the standard set by Florida law for punitive damage awards.
How Do Florida Laws Define When a Defendant May Be Ordered to Pay Punitive Damages?
Most personal injury cases do not involve conduct that rises to the level required for an award of punitive damages. According to Florida Statute §768.72, the defendant’s conduct must be grossly negligent or constitute intentional misconduct. There must also be clear and convincing evidence that the defendant’s conduct met this standard.
“Grossly negligent” means that the defendant exhibited a conscious indifference or disregard for the safety of other people. On the other hand, “intentional misconduct” means that the defendant knowingly proceeded with conduct he knew could cause a risk of harm to another person.
Generally, a plaintiff has the burden of proving the elements of negligence by a preponderance of the evidence in a personal injury case. This level of proof means that the plaintiff must convince the jury that there is a greater than 50% chance that the allegations against the defendant are true.
However, there is a greater burden of proof to obtain an award of punitive damages. Clear and convincing evidence leaves the jury with a conviction or firm belief that it is highly probable the allegations are true. This degree of proof is less than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard but more than a “preponderance of the evidence.”
Requiring the higher burden of proof ensures that the defendant is afforded due process. The jury instructions given by the judge must clearly explain under what circumstances the jury can award punitive damages.
Does Florida Limit the Amount of Punitive Damages in a Personal Injury Case?
The United States Supreme Court has ruled that the punitive damages awarded in cases cannot be excessive. Many states calculate punitive damages as a number multiplied by the amount of compensatory damages that were awarded. However, if the amount the jury awards is excessive, the judge can reduce the award.
Some states cap the amount of punitive damages that a jury may award. Florida’s cap on punitive damages is calculated as the amount of compensatory damages awarded to the plaintiff times three. However, except in a few cases, the punitive damages cannot exceed $500,000.
Florida courts may allow an award of punitive damages above the usual cap in cases involving:
- Victims with disabilities
- Child abuse
- Defendants who were intoxicated when they injured the plaintiff
- Elder abuse
- Defendants who intentionally set out to cause harm
Another exception to the cap is cases involving conduct motivated by financial gain. In those cases, the court or the jury can award up to four times the amount of compensatory damages for a maximum of $2 million.
Contact a Fort Walton Beach Personal Injury Lawyer to See If You May Be Entitled to Punitive Damages
If you’ve been injured by another party, contact an experienced personal injury attorney to discuss your situation. An attorney will examine your case to determine the types of damages you can recover, including punitive damages. Even if your case does not justify an award of punitive damages, a lawyer will work diligently to obtain the maximum compensation for your case.