What are Punitive Damages?
When someone has been injured in a car accident, slip and fall incident or other incident caused by another person’s wrongful conduct, the injured person is often entitled to receive compensation. This compensation is generally referred to in legal cases as “damages.” Awards for damages include amounts to offset different effects of an accident and the resulting injuries. Sometimes, a damage award includes amounts for punitive damages.
While many people have heard of punitive damages, they often don’t quite understand what they are. So let’s take a look at punitive damages, see how they compare with other damages, and get an idea of when punitive damages are awarded so that you can be prepared to obtain the maximum compensation after an injury.
The Purpose of Damages
After a loss caused by someone else’s wrongful or irresponsible behavior, our civil legal system tries to make you whole and bring you back to the place you were before. If someone took money from you, the civil courts could order them to pay back the money. But if you hurt your back or suffered a brain injury in an auto accident, the court cannot order someone to restore your health or turn back the clock to the time before the injury. All the courts can offer to make up for your losses is money.
However, the court will often award separate sums of money for the distinct effects resulting from your injuries. Some damages are provided to make up for losses that have a direct economic equivalent. For instance, if you incurred $150,000 in medical bills, you would receive $150,000 plus amounts anticipated to cover medical needs in the future.
Other damages are provided to make up for effects that don’t have a direct economic cost but that still have a tremendous impact on your life, such as pain. Both the economic damages and noneconomic damages are provided to compensate you for your losses. For that reason, they are known as compensatory damages.
Punitive damages are different.
Punitive Damages Focus on the Wrong Rather Than the Loss
As the name implies, punitive damages are intended to punish the wrongful acts rather than to compensate the victim for their losses. Punitive damages operate somewhat similar to fines in a criminal case. They penalize wrongful conduct and hopefully deter others from engaging in similar conduct.
Under the Georgia punitive damages statute, courts are only allowed to award punitive damages in cases where it is clear that the person responsible for the harm acted willfully, wantonly, with malice, or with such a complete lack of care that they appeared to not to care at all about the consequences.
Generally, a defendant’s conduct must be seriously egregious for a court to award punitive damages. If someone assaults the victim with a weapon or commits another intentionally harmful act, that could justify an award of punitive damages. In addition, when injuries are caused by driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the victim can often seek punitive damages. Nursing home abuse and daycare abuse are other examples of situations where a court might award punitive damages to protect the vulnerable.
Punitive Damages Require Special Effort
In addition to their purpose, punitive damages differ from other types of damages in some additional respects. First, an attorney must specifically ask for punitive damages at the time of filing the complaint. That means if you want to have any chance of recovering these types of damages, your attorney must be well-informed and prepared with solid evidence and arguments.
Next, a personal injury claimant will need to meet a higher burden of proof to justify an award of punitive damages as compared to compensatory damages. For compensatory damages, the injured person’s attorney only needs to prove causation and injuries by a “preponderance of the evidence.” This is often described as saying that it was more likely than not that it is true. To prove that punitive damages are justified, the wrongful conduct must be demonstrated by “clear and convincing proof,” which is a stricter standard.
However, the burden of proof is not as strict as the standard used in criminal proceedings, where guilt must be established “beyond a reasonable doubt.” For that reason, an individual might be found not guilty of a criminal offense such as assault but still be found liable for damages—including punitive damages—in a civil lawsuit.
Punitive damages are considered separately in a personal injury case, outside the other issues and damages.
Limits on Punitive Damages
Georgia law sets limits on the amount of money that may be awarded in punitive damages in many cases. The base limit for this type of damage award is $250,000. Remember that this amount is provided in addition to other amounts a personal injury victim might receive for pain, suffering, lost wages, diminished future earnings, and other factors.
In certain cases, the law does not apply any limit to the amount of punitive damages that may be awarded. These include situations where a driver caused an accident while intoxicated or under the influence of drugs. In addition, where someone caused injuries intentionally, punitive damages are not subject to any monetary limit.
A Dedicated Georgia Injury Attorney Can Help You Recover Punitive Damages
If you suffered injuries in an accident involving a drunk driver, or if you were the victim of violent crime or egregious abuse, you may be entitled to additional money as punitive damages. At Michael M. Day Law Firm, LLC, our experienced team understands when we can make a good case for punitive damages so that we can start preparing the best arguments to show by clear and convincing evidence that the court should award punitive damages. To learn more about whether you may be able to recover punitive damages and how to get the maximum recovery for your losses of all types, schedule a consultation with us today by calling 404-480-4284 or reaching out to us online.