What Are Punitive Damages & When Are They Awarded in Florida Personal Injury Cases?

If someone’s negligence caused your accident, you can typically seek compensation for your losses through a claim or lawsuit. Damages come in a variety of forms. For instance, you may have heard of punitive damages. However, you might not know what they are.

This guide offers an explainer on punitive damages and provides examples of when a court or jury may award them.

Punitive Damages & Personal Injury Cases in Florida

A victim in a personal injury case will typically receive compensation for losses resulting from someone else’s negligence. This compensation is called “damages” and means to make a victim whole after an accident. These damages can cover economic and non-economic losses.

Economic damages compensate for financial losses after an accident, including medical bills, lost wages, and property damage. Depending on the circumstances, they may be able to recover non-economic compensation for intangible losses or damages, such as pain and suffering

These damages are called compensatory damages because they compensate the victim for losses. They do not punish a defendant. However, there are instances when a court or jury decides to punish the defendant for their conduct. This is when a court will award punitive damages.

Punitive damages exceed the amount of compensation a defendant would normally be required to provide. A court may award punitive damages when a defendant knowingly engaged in unlawful or reckless behavior that injured another. These damages aren’t available in most personal injury cases. The defendant’s conduct must have been especially egregious or malicious to warrant punitive damages.

Be aware, “behavior” in a personal injury case doesn’t need to consist of actions. It can consist of inaction. For example, a failure to adequately maintain a property in a way that guards against accidents could justify a personal injury suit.

Personal Injury Cases & Punitive Damages: Case Studies

It’s impossible to guarantee that a court will award punitive damages in a personal injury case. 

However, reviewing some real-life case studies can help you better understand when they might be available:

LeSanche v. Troy

In this case, the defendant was speeding when they rear-ended a vehicle. This caused the driver of the vehicle to rear-end the plaintiff’s vehicle with enough force that the plaintiff’s head broke through the rear window of his truck.

Witnesses at the scene reported seeing the defendant throw items over a nearby guardrail. Police later found three bottles containing marijuana nearby. A urine test also confirmed the defendant had drugs in their system.

A jury determined the plaintiff had suffered substantial damages. They awarded punitive damages after concluding that the defendant had acted “willfully and wantonly.” Courts may be inclined to award punitive damages in cases of drunk or drugged driving that causes injury.

Liebeck v. McDonald’s

This is a famous personal injury case that has been unfairly and inaccurately depicted in the media and pop culture. It involved a plaintiff seeking compensation when she suffered major injuries as a result of spilling an unreasonably hot cup of McDonald’s coffee on her lower body.

Contrary to what some believe, the plaintiff was not driving when she spilled the coffee. The vehicle was stopped, and she was in the passenger seat. The coffee was far hotter than a reasonable person would have expected. The plaintiff’s injuries were so severe that her life never fully returned to “normal.”

The plaintiff initially only sought compensation for her medical bills. She and her attorneys took McDonald’s to court when the company refused to offer a fair settlement. Due to the severity of her injuries and various other relevant factors, the plaintiff was awarded punitive damages.

The Role of Punitive Damages in Personal Injury Cases

Punitive damages can play an exceptionally important role in keeping all people safe. They do so in the following ways:

Preventing Future Bad Behavior

When a negligent or malicious party is forced to pay punitive damages, they’re typically motivated to avoid causing future harm. They take steps to ensure they don’t hurt others again because of the past consequences of such behavior.

Setting an Example

Punitive damages can also deter others from acting in the same way as the defendant. Punitive damages set an example. They let others know that there is a price to pay for injuring people through recklessness or gross negligence.. 

Contact a Tampa Personal Injury Attorney For Help

None of this is to suggest you will receive punitive damages if you file a personal injury lawsuit. That said, you’re much more likely to be awarded punitive damages if you seek representation from a qualified personal injury attorney at Catania & Catania, P.A. Please contact our law office in Tampa, Florida at (813) 222-8545 to discuss your case.