What are Punitive Damages in a Personal Injury Case and When are They Awarded?

What are Punitive Damages in a Personal Injury Case and When are They Awarded?

A court may award punitive damages to an injured party to punish the defendant for their wrongful conduct in a personal injury case.

They are also awarded to deter others from engaging in similar misconduct.

When are Punitive Damages Awarded?

Several issues impact whether punitive damages will be awarded, including the applicable standard of conduct and standard of proof. Furthermore, the law of punitive damages varies by jurisdiction.

In New York, whether punitive damages are available depends on the defendant’s “standard of conduct.” Did they act unreasonably under the circumstances? Or did the defendant recklessly or intentionally do something wrong? Per the New York Court of Appeals, “the standard for imposing punitive damages is a strict one.” 

For punitive damages, there must be “such a conscious and deliberate disregard of the interests of others that the conduct may be called wilful or wanton.” In other words, courts will only impose punitive damages if the defendant recklessly or intentionally caused harm to another. 

Standard of Proof

If the defendant’s actions meet the required standard of conduct, the next question is the burden of proof. Currently, New York law is undecided on the question. One appellate court has stated that proving punitive damages requires a “preponderance of the evidence, not clear and convincing evidence.” However, another appellate court requires clear and convincing evidence that the defendant’s conduct warrants punitive damages.

In many other states, the standard of proof is “clear and convincing evidence,” which is higher than a “preponderance of the evidence” but lower than “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Right now, the standard of conduct required depends on which supreme court the case is filed in. Some day, New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, will resolve the issue.

Federal Law

Often, in federal courts, personal injury claims are based on the underlying state law. In these cases, the state law standards for punitive damages are generally followed.

However, if an employee of the federal government committed the wrongful conduct, punitive damages also may be awarded. It depends on the law or statute a personal injury is based on.

For example, if you file a claim for personal injury based on a federal government employee’s violation of your constitutional rights, then punitive damages are available

If the same personal injury claim is against a state or local employee, then punitive damages also may be available.

When involving the wrongful actions of a federal employee not associated with constitutional rights, personal injury claims are often filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act. With very limited exceptions, the recovery of punitive damages under this Act is statutorily prohibited

Under federal law, the specific standard of conduct and standard of proof vary. Consult a personal injury lawyer to understand the exact rules for your claim. 

Statutory Caps on Liability

Under New York law, there are no statutory limits, or caps, on the amount of punitive damages. However, if a court finds them to be grossly excessive, it may limit them. 

In federal courts, caps may or may not exist. It depends on the statute or other law under which the personal injury action was brought. 

Constitutional Limits on Punitive Damages

The U.S. Constitution limits the amount awarded for punitive damages; the Constitution does not allow excessive or arbitrary punishments. The United States Supreme Court has examined the issue. 

When determining whether an award is constitutional, three factors must be considered.

  1. How bad was the defendant’s conduct?
  2. The ratio of punitive damages to compensatory damages.
  3. The comparison of punitive damages to appropriate civil penalties.

The first factor is self-explanatory – it considers just how wrongful the defendant’s conduct was. 

The second factor looks at the ratio of punitive damages awarded compared to compensatory damages like medical expenses and pain and suffering. Generally, any ratio greater than a single digit is too high.

Finally, the third factor compares the award to statutory damages imposed for the misconduct. For example, assume that the plaintiff is injured on a job site because the employer intentionally violated an OSHA safety regulation. The fine for this is about $135,000. If the plaintiff is awarded $500,000 in punitive damages, the question becomes whether the difference in the award and the regulatory fine is too great.

Experienced Punitive Damages Attorneys

The law of punitive damages is challenging. The specifics may depend on the jurisdiction of the court, state or federal law, and other factors. Our dedicated personal injury lawyers are here to help. We understand how the law applies to your personal injury claim and will work hard to get you the punitive damages award that you deserve.