If you or a loved one has suffered injuries in an accident, you may believe that the person who caused the accident deserves punishment. That is understandable. However, Florida has strict standards that determine when and in what situations a plaintiff may receive punitive damages.
Defining Punitive Damages
In Florida, a punitive damage award punishes a defendant for gross negligence or intentional misconduct. Punitive damage awards punish the defendant rather than compensate a plaintiff for losses (although they are awarded to the plaintiff). They are meant to deter the defendant and other individuals from engaging in the same conduct that caused the plaintiff’s injury.
These punitive damage awards are usually given on top of any compensatory awards that a plaintiff recovers. That means that punitive damages are calculated separately from damages for lost wages, medical treatment, and pain and suffering.
Punitive Damages in Florida Personal Injury Law
When a person suffers an injury due to an accident in Florida, their personal injury lawyer will likely begin their case by calculating the victim’s damages. Florida injury lawyers rely on personal experience and detailed records associated with medical treatment, lost wages, property damage, and other such items.
A personal injury attorney can bring in medical experts, accountants, actuaries, and other financial professionals who can determine a victim’s costs and any future losses they will likely incur due to the accident.
Personal injury lawyers may also seek recovery for a client’s non-economic damages, such as compensation for emotional distress, a loss of the ability to perform everyday activities, loss of consortium, and others.
You have the burden of proof to show that you deserve damages. Traditional damages like economic and noneconomic damages must be proven by a preponderance of the evidence. This means that you must show you more likely than not incurred these damages. This standard is easy to meet when you have documentation of your losses.
To recover punitive compensation, you must show that you are entitled to these damages by clear and convincing evidence. This is a much higher standard than preponderance of the evidence. It requires you to show that your claims are highly and substantially more likely to be true than untrue.
Punitive Damages are Treated Separately in Injury Law Cases
Punitive damages are treated separately from other compensation awards. Suppose you are a plaintiff in a personal injury claim, and you “win” the case, either through settlement or a trial, and you are awarded damages. That does not necessarily mean that you will receive punitive damages as well.
According to Florida’s Supreme Court (W.R. Grace v. Waters (1994)), the actions of a defendant must be “fraudulent, malicious, deliberately violent or oppressive, or committed with such gross negligence as to indicate a wanton disregard for the rights of others,” to qualify for punitive damages.
Intentional misconduct occurs when the defendant is aware that their behavior was dangerous or wrong and could cause injury to others. Gross negligence refers to extremely careless or reckless conduct that causes an injury. Gross negligence is a higher degree of carelessness than ordinary negligence. It demonstrates a substantial disregard for a person’s safety.
Examples of gross negligence include drunk driving. Judges have shown a willingness to levy punitive damages against a defendant who injured others due to intoxicated driving. Examples of intentional misconduct would be any kind of violence, such as assault, battery, sexual assault, and murder. However, other situations may qualify for punitive damages also.
Florida Caps Punitive Damage Award Amounts
Florida’s mandatory limit on punitive damages is three times any compensatory damages awarded, or $500,000, whichever one is greater. In cases where a defendant’s misconduct was undertaken for financial gain, the victim can be awarded up to four times any compensatory damage award or $2 million, whichever one is higher.
Punitive Damage Limits on Medical Malpractice
Florida is one of several states with different punitive damage limits on medical malpractice claims. Medical malpractice plaintiffs in Florida can collect as much as $500,000 on punitive damage claims against doctors and other medical providers. In cases where the defendant is a hospital, the victim can collect punitive damages of as much as $750,000. However, some exemptions do apply.
A jury does not receive instruction on damage caps before deliberation in Florida. So, when a jury decides on a monetary award, it is based on their belief in what compensation is appropriate. A judge may then impose the cap based on the jury’s decision. A judge may also override the cap at their own discretion.
Seeking Punitive Damages in a Florida Personal Injury Lawsuit
Were you or someone you love is injured in a medical malpractice case, in an auto accident, or any other personal injury where punitive damages may apply? Contact a personal injury lawyer for help.