In personal injury tort cases that involve excessive, wanton, gross, reckless, or malicious negligence, personal injury punitive damages may be assessed. The assessment of punitive damage awards to victims in personal injury cases is intended to be a strong message from the courts to deter others, as well as the defendants themselves, from repeating the actions that harmed victims. In other instances, a civil tort judge or jury will award victims personal injury punitive damages in order to make up for lacking compensatory damage awards that, although technically according to the letter of the law do compensate victims, do not make up or rectify the civil wrongs done by a defendant to victims. The types of cases the would warrant punitive damages are exactly like those found in personal injury cases, where the detrimental affects of a defendant’s actions did and will continue to affect victims, not to mention their loved ones, for years to come. Also, some personal injury cases carry enough negligence to be charged within a criminal court; however, victims may choose to pursue their claims exclusively in the civil courts, or in both legal forums. These types of cases usually involve a high level of intent or maliciousness rather than liable negligence, which courts will seek to address by awarding victims personal injury punitive damages.
Within the United States, awarding punitive damages is an established principle of civil tort law, however, only a small margin of personal injury cases, or civil tort cases as a whole, result in judgments assessing punitive damages. The United States Department of Justice notes that punitive damages are generally in the median range of around $44,000 and occur in only 2% of civil trials. However, a plethora of well known instances of much larger awards have been recorded in the past. The factors influencing the size and appropriateness of a personal injury punitive damages is dependant include the jurisdiction where the case is being tried, especially the state, and the applicable state statutes and court case precedents ascribed to by a given state. For example, some states, in response to lobbyists and public outcry, have mandated personal injury punitive damages caps for all awards, while other state courts have applied these punitive damage award cap laws to their state laws and deemed them unconstitutional. Only a personal injury lawyer can truly assess the potential of your personal injury claim and your rights as a victim to obtain punitive damages.
There are, however, several Supreme Court decisions that are a good reference point for estimating the efficacy of obtaining personal injury punitive damages and the potential amount of these awards.
Some of the Supreme Court rulings that are highly influential on the current state of punitive damage awards at the federal level in the United States include:
- Phillip Morris USA v. Williams in 2007
- State Farm Auto Insurance v. Campbell in 2003
- BMW of North America, Incorporated v. Gore in 1996
Though these cases ruled on specific points of contention between plaintiffs and defendants, the cases set important precedents forth regarding personal injury punitive damages for future and current victims of personal injury. In the aforementioned cases, the Supreme Court has stated punitive damages must be reasonable in nature, and the ratios of four to one in comparing compensatory awards to punitive awards is pushing the limit of what is legally responsible or reasonable. For the assessment of punitive damages, the Supreme Court has also ruled conduct by defendants must be reprehensible to warrant punitive damages, and that the damages must only be for the actions of defendants that directly harmed the named plaintiff or victim.
One of the most important parts of seeking damages from defendants is when victims opt to use a personal injury lawyer in their case. Not only will a victim’s personal injury lawyer counsel, litigation, and represent the victims, but also, they will be able to refute any counterclaims made by the defendant’s legal team as well. A personal injury lawyer can work with victims to ensure they receive the compensatory damages, as well as the punitive damages, they deserve following a personal injury incident.
Do you feel you or your loved ones deserve personal injury punitive damages? Contact a personal injury lawyer to find out more about your legal rights and options regarding personal injury punitive damages today.