Punitive Damages and the Importance in Personal Injury Cases
It’s careful organization and preparation on the part of an experienced lawyer that can adequately convince the judge that a ruling to award Punitive Damages to a victim is fair and just. Aside from Compensatory and Pecuniary damages, awarding a victim Punitive Damages not only provides them with further compensation, but it validates that the injuries they suffered due to the defendant’s actions were real, extreme, and catastrophic enough to warrant that the defendant be “punished” in a legal sense for such actions.
In 2018’s extensive write-ups on Damages, the Law Resource Blog covered the “why” and the “how” of a lawyer recovering the maximum amount of financial compensation on behalf of a client. We explored, in-depth, several types of damages, and how they can provide a positive outlook for an accident victim’s future financially. When medical expenses devastate a victim and their family, it’s up to the Senior Attorney on a case to ensure their client’s claim is properly prepared and presented, and to take it all the way to trial, into the trenches, if necessary.
This proper presentation of a Personal Injury case by a Board Certified civil trial lawyer can include everything from calling expert witnesses such as physicians, surgeons, and mental health professionals to attest to the victim’s injuries and reduced quality of life–to utilizing accident recreation and demonstrative aides. Expert witnesses and demonstrative aides are all part of an experienced lawyer’s “legal toolbox”; Board Certified lawyers keep their “toolbox” fully stocked and organized, even if they may not utilize every “tool” in every case. The rationale behind this is simple: a Board Certified lawyer knows that a well-prepared, carefully presented case is the only way to ensure their client is compensated for what may be a lifetime of pain and suffering caused by the negligent actions of another.
Recognizing a reasonable rationale
When attempting to request a judge and jury rule in favor of the victim, and thusly award Punitive Damages, there must be reasonable rationale behind the lawyer’s reasons for doing so. For example: if the plaintiff is severely injured and sustains a Traumatic Brain Injury after being hit by a drunk driver, a lawyer may present his or her case for Punitive Damages in front of a judge. This is due to the fact that the defendant was aware of their actions–from drinking, to picking up the car keys, to getting behind the wheel–and their actions were completely avoidable.
In other cases, this legal burden of proof may not be as readily available and must be even more carefully investigated during the Discovery process. An inexperienced lawyer who doesn’t have enough or any trial experience, may completely kill their case by attempting to seek a ruling for Punitive Damages where they are not warranted; or in reverse, they may overlook their chance to present a case for them where they were. A catastrophic injury case in the hands of a lawyer who lacks extensive trial experience can prove disastrous (for both the client and the lawyer’s reputation), and clients faced with this scenario should quickly find different legal representation. A client should never worry that their lawyer is not prepared to go to trial should it become necessary.
Florida’s laws are complex
In certain states including Florida, where the crime rates and accident rates are both higher than the national average, limitations or “caps” are placed upon Punitive Damages. The state of Florida specifically mandates that an award of Punitive Damages may not exceed three times the amount of the Compensatory Damages awarded–or $500,000, whichever amount is higher. To be clear, the state of Florida is very thorough in their statute, and as of 2018, they maintain the following as it pertains to Punitive Damages:
768.73 Punitive damages; limitation.—
(1)(a) Except as provided in paragraphs (b) and (c), an award of punitive damages may not exceed the greater of:
1. Three times the amount of compensatory damages awarded to each claimant entitled thereto, consistent with the remaining provisions of this section; or
2. The sum of $500,000.
A red flag for a victim seeking to retain a Personal Injury lawyer is whether or not he or she is aware of the limitations. If a lawyer isn’t aware, or acts as if they can get a higher amount than legally allowed, it’s time for the client to find a different law firm.
Damages used as a deterrent
Often when a judge rules that a defendant pay damages above and beyond Compensatory and/or Pecuniary, it’s due to the nature of injuries sustained by the victim at the hands of the opposing party (“defense”). When a victim sustains injuries so severe they are more than likely expected to never fully recover (e.g. paralysis, brain injury, amputation, blindness), these are injuries than are deemed catastrophic in nature. When a defendant is responsible for injuries this severe, a judge is applying the wisdom that if subjected to a higher amount of compensation be paid to a victim, it may deter that defendant and others in the future from committing the type of reckless actions that lead them to the courtroom and the victim confined to a hospital bed in the first place.
The job of the judge is to rule fairly and impartially. When a victim and their lawyer come forward with an account of the accident, it’s up to His or Her Honor to decide if the severity of the victim’s injuries warrant Punitive Damages to be awarded, or if the verdict need not include them. Under normal circumstances, Punitive Damages will be awarded to victims whose experienced lawyers present the facts in a well prepared, thoroughly documented case that leaves no room for any question as to the severity of the injuries.
Proving the victim endured pain and suffering and continues to anguish with lifelong physical and emotional injuries should not be taken lightly, and thusly should never be entrusted solely to a younger, less experienced lawyer. Namely, a Board Certified civil trial lawyer should take point, and allow the younger lawyer to learn alongside them during the trial process. Remember: when it comes to Personal Injury law, the “burden of proof” is placed upon the victim and their lawyer, and “beyond a reasonable doubt” is not the term applied in these cases.