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When Can Punitive Damages Be Part Of A Lawsuit?

In most lawsuit cases, the goal of litigants is to get back what is owed. Suppose someone is injured in a car accident, for example, and other driver refuses to accept responsibility. In that case, a personal injury lawsuit goes through, usually for the cost of medical treatment and any wages lost due to hospitalization. In a typical lawsuit, the legal intention is to financially restore the “status quo” and give the accident victim whatever is lost.

There is, however, another type of lawsuit where it’s not just the actual damages sought, but far more on top of that. This is often an attempt to go beyond getting what’s owed, and punish a defendant, or even publicly make an example of them. These are called “punitive damages,” and they can go far beyond the norm.

What Are Punitive Damages?

As the name suggests, punitive damages are an additional amount of money above and beyond compensation, often with the intent to punish a defendant. Punitive damage lawsuits are the type that usually makes news headlines, where the total damages involved can be in the millions or even tens of millions.

Because of the much larger amounts typically involved in punitive damages, these lawsuits are not common. A plaintiff can’t simply decide a case is one with punitive damages and add ten million to a case that was only for $15000 in compensation. Specific criteria have to be met before a lawyer will agree a case merits punitive damages, and a court decides to let a case be carried out as such.

When Can Punitive Damages Be Applied?

Punitive damages are typically used in the most extreme legal cases when a plaintiff claims that “gross negligence” is involved. If any harm occurs, it is usually due to carelessness or neglect in a standard negligence case. The injury that occurs is accidental because the responsible parties failed to uphold their safety responsibility, but only in a negligent manner. They were careless, lazy, or forgetful, but not malicious.

However, gross negligence goes far beyond typical carelessness. It becomes either an unacceptably high degree of neglect or, in some cases, even deliberate, malicious intent. In this case, punitive damages are there to recognize that this is an extraordinary case of harm that should be shown as an example to others of what not to do.

Examples Of Gross Negligence

In some cases, there is no intent to harm, but there is a deliberate attempt to evade responsibility without care about whether harm arises. For example, technicians, operators, and official inspectors warn an amusement park that a roller coaster is extremely dangerous. The amusement park managers continue to operate the ride, resulting in the deaths of visitors.

Another example would be a driver who claims at a bar that he has every intention of getting drunk and getting into an accident. He drinks well beyond the legal limit, loudly announcing he wants to crash his car, and then gets into an accident resulting in deaths. This goes far beyond a typical drunk driving accident, and punitive damages would be appropriate.

If you’re the victim of gross negligence, talk to a personal injury lawyer about whether it’s time to bring in punitive damages.

Stephen M. Fernandez developed a strong belief in justice and fairness in public policy while earning his Political Science degree prior to attending law school. Since joining the Florida Bar Association in 2004, Stephen Fernandez has combined his background in public policy, business administration and civil law to serve as a highly effective trial lawyer fighting for Florida's injured, working hard every day to make sure his clients get what they are owed.

When Can Punitive Damages Be Part Of A Lawsuit?

Goldman Babboni Fernandez
Murphy & Walsh

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