Can You Get Punitive Damages in a Personal Injury Case?
When the defendant in a personal injury case is hit with punitive damages, the payout could be much higher for the plaintiff. Roughly 13% of punitive damage verdicts exceed $1 million, and some of them are even larger. However, punitive damages in a personal injury case are only assessed under certain limited circumstances.
When Do You Get Punitive Damages?
Punitive damages are meant to send a message to the defendant as opposed to compensate the plaintiff for the harm that they suffered. It’s a way of punishing the defendant and discouraging others from committing the same wrongful act. Nevertheless, the plaintiff ends up being the beneficiary of this punishment as it results in a higher damages award.
For there to be punitive damages, there must be behavior that is extremely reckless or even malicious. In other words, there must something very bad beyond simple negligence.
Juries are generally very hesitant to give punitive damages. They have a very high standard that focuses solely on what the defendant did as opposed to the level of injuries suffered by the plaintiff. However, when juries do give punitive damages, the extra payout can be used to pay for better medical rehabilitation care.
Punitive Damages in a New Jersey Lawsuit
Some states do not allow for punitive damages in connection with a personal injury lawsuit. However, this does not include New Jersey. State law allows for punitive damages up to five times the amount of compensatory damages that are awarded. Alternatively, if compensatory damages are low, the plaintiff can be awarded up to $350,000 of punitive damages regardless of the size of the damages.
As a result, you will likely not see the eye-popping punitive damage awards in New Jersey that you will see in other states. Nonetheless, this will still allow for verdicts that punish bad behavior. The punitive damages can be very large in cases where the plaintiff has been badly hurt and has high medical costs or significant lost wages.
The Standard of Proof in Your Personal Injury Case
To qualify for punitive damages, the plaintiff will need to meet a higher standard of proof than they would to show that the defendant is civilly liable. The usual standard of proof in a civil case is a “preponderance of the evidence” that the defendant was responsible for the injuries.
When it comes to punitive damages, you would need to show “clear and convincing evidence” of either malice or extreme recklessness. In other words, the burden of proof is closer to that in a criminal case. This makes sense because you are actually punishing the defendant financially in a manner that is similar to a criminal penalty.
In a car accident, punitive damages will be relatively rare. Usually, the court will find one party at fault through the car accident in the form of a verdict that they were negligent. Stated simply, most cases of negligence are “garden variety” negligence cases, even where the defendant’s actions or inactions caused severe injury.
For example, if the defendant was going 45 mph in a 30 mph zone and caused a car accident, the act could be considered negligence, and no punitive damages would be merited. However, if the defendant was traveling at an extremely high and reckless rate of speed, say for example over 95 mph, this could be considered reckless enough to bring the case into the realm of punitive damages. Alternatively, if there was a civil suit over a death caused by a drunk driver, it could also demonstrate malice or extreme recklessness.
Your personal injury lawyer will generally know when to request punitive damages in a case. It is reserved for extremely bad behavior, so it’s best to use caution in regard to seeking these damages. In the end, deciding whether to award these damages is solely up to the jury.
When you need a personal injury lawyer, contact the attorneys at RAM Law at (732) 247-3600 if you’re in New Brunswick, (908) 448-2560 if you’re in Somerville, or (732) 828-2234 if you’re in Freehold.