How punitive damages work in Texas personal injury cases:
In our continuing series on damages, we're now going to look at why punitive damages exists, and how your attorney can pursue them. This is an intricate area of the law, but this will introduce you to the main concepts.
Our Comprehensive Guide to Personal Injury Laws is designed for newcomers and lawyers alike to learn about the basics. Check it out.
Questions answered on this page:
- What are punitive damages?
- How do you prove punitive damages should be awarded according to Texas law?
- What is the cap on punitive damages in Texas?
- How can an attorney help me get the most compensation possible for any out-of-pocket expenses I incurred after an accident?
The idea behind punitive damages.
In most civil cases, the point behind them is to recover approximately what you quantifiable lost. For example, in a breach of contract case, a business would sue to recover the money it should have made had the deal been honored. The same holds true for most personal injury claims---we're trying to recover medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering. However, in some cases, the law allows you to pursue the defendant for something more than just the money you lost or for compensation for mental and physical suffering.
In instances where the defendant behaved in an especially egregious manner, the law empowers victims to sue for more money for two main reasons:
- To punish the perpetrator: Those who've behaved in a grossly negligent, wantonly reckless manner deserve to be made to pay more than "just" the normal damages. Rather than simply having made a mistake, these individuals acted in a manner evincing a complete lack of concern for the well-being of other people. As such, justice demands more.
- To deter similar bad acts in the future: Lawsuits always have some deterrent impact, but word gets out when someone is hit for a truly high-dollar amount. This is especially true as concerns corporate defendants.
Exemplary damages are about the civil justice system doing more than simply making victims whole, but righting the scales of justice as well.
What must be proven to win punitive damages in Texas.
As you can imagine, courts require a number of hurdles that victims' attorney must jump over to successfully secure these extra awards in injury cases. This is because of the serious nature of the penalties imposed, as well as the often sizable amounts of money that juries can award.
First, there must be "actual damages." Meaning, there must be a dollar award for loss of wages, medical bills, property damages, and/or mental anguish. Exemplary damages cannot occur in a vacuum, so to speak.
Second, the plaintiff must show some kind of "aggravated conduct." This is where much of the fight in court happens. Relevant to most injury cases, this requires a showing of "gross negligence." The plaintiff must prove the following tests:
- The objective test: At the time of the incident, someone in the defendant's shoes would have known what they were doing involved an extreme degree of risk when we factor in the magnitude and probability of potential harm.
- The subjective test: The defendant man, woman, or company actually knew of the risk but did the act anyhow.
Further, the standard of proof is different for gross negligence. In virtually all other civil claims, your attorney must convince a jury that you've proven your case by a preponderance of the evidence." Essentially, that means if the jury finds your claims 51% credible and the defendant's 49%, you win. However, in proving up gross, it requires providing "clear and convincing evidence" that the defendant's actions meet the tests discussed above.
The amount of money victims can recover in punitive damages is capped.
Back in the old days, whatever the jury decided was the dollar amount you deserved is what you got. In an effort to stop so-called "runaway juries" from hurting businesses, the Texas Legislature placed limits on what juries could award for punitive damages under most circumstances. A law called the Texas Damages Act capped punitive damages in the following way:
- Punitive damages are limited to the value of two times the amount the jury wards for economic damages plus...
- An amount equal to what the jury awards for non-economic damages (up $750,000).
Or, if the jury does not award any compensation for economic damages...
- The amount of punitive damages is capped at $200,000.
Further, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a products liability case that making a defendant pay an absurdly high amount of punitive damages is a violation of the Due Process Clause. While the court did not create a hard and fast rule regarding what is excessive, it's generally regarded as being about 4 times the compensatory damages awarded in the case.
There is no list of activities that qualify as "gross negligence." Rather, like obscenity, "you know it when you see it."
The Personal Injury Attorneys at Grossman Law Can Help
It takes a skilled lawyer to prove these cases up. Call the personal injury attorneys at Grossman Law Offices, based in Dallas, TX, at (855) 326-0000 for a free consultation.
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