Punitive Damages in Personal Injury Cases
Damages from a personal injury claim are intended to help an injured party return to their position prior to their injury – as much as possible. Most personal injury judgments award damages that compensate an injury victim for the financial and emotional costs of their injury.
These damages are called compensatory or actual damages – and are typically comprised of economic and non-economic damages.
On the one hand, these damages cover an injured party’s economic losses, including medical bills, lost wages, etc. These damages also compensate for losses that are not monetary in nature, such as pain and suffering, emotional distress, or loss of enjoyment of life.
What are Punitive Damages?
Punitive damages are a different story. Punitive damages mean to punish the defendant for their conduct – not compensate the victim for their injury.
A court may add punitive damages to compensatory damages in certain circumstances. Specifically, the court decides whether the conduct at issue was especially harmful or outrageous to warrant punishment.
Generally, punitive damages serve two purposes: 1) to punish the person who has engaged in severely harmful behavior; and 2) two to deter others from behaving in the same way. Therefore, there is a broad range of punitive damages, and they largely depend on the specific facts and circumstances that surround a claim.
When are Punitive Damages Awarded?
Punitive damages largely depend on specific state laws. Most states have statutes that determine what claims implicate punitive damages and when.
However, punitive damages can generally be awarded when:
- The defendant was grossly reckless or negligent. This means a defendant’s conduct, while unintentional, fell so far below the reasonable person standard that it could be considered grossly reckless. Drunk driving sometimes falls into this category.
- The defendant acted willfully and intentionally. This is when the claim at issue is an intentional tort, and the defendant intended the harm he inflicted on the plaintiff.
- The defendant committed fraud.
In Georgia, examples of conduct that justifies punitive damages includes:
- Products liability
- Assault; either with a deadly weapon or felony assault
- Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs
- Sexual assault
- Statutory rape; sex with a minor
- Nursing home abuse
Any one of these situations may make punitive damages available for a plaintiff.
The Standard for Punitive Damages
Additionally, punitive damages require a higher standard of proof. In most personal injury cases, a party must prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence – meaning that the defendant was “more likely than not” negligent.
For punitive damages, however, many states (including Georgia) require a clear and convincing standard of proof. This burden is a much higher standard of proof than preponderance of the evidence.
Limitations on Punitive Damages in Personal Injury Cases
The U.S. Supreme Court has decided that there must be a limit on punitive damages. In determining what that limit is, the Court has suggested a 9:1 ratio for punitive to compensatory damages may be an appropriate cap. In other words, your punitive damages cannot be more than 9x larger than your compensatory damages. For instance, if your compensatory damages are one million dollars, your punitive damages cannot exceed nine million dollars.
Most states also place their own caps on punitive damages. For example, Georgia has a $250,000 limit on punitive damages – with a few exceptions.
Some exceptions, varying by state, may include:
- Product liability cases
- When the defendant acted with specific intent to harm the victim
- When the defendant acted under the influence of alcohol or drugs
Punitive damages might not go directly to a plaintiff’s pocket. In certain states, a percentage of punitive damages goes to the state treasury. In Georgia, for example, 75% of punitive damages go to the state treasury. Nevertheless, coupled with compensatory damages, punitive damages can still result in a sizable award.