It can be very difficult for the layperson to understand how damages are awarded in a civil trial and nowhere is this confusion more apparent than in the question of punitive damages. This can be especially true in personal injury cases, where the difference between damages and punitive damages can be an important factor in how the case affects both the plaintiff and defendant.
Punitive damages are a form of damages that are distinguished from other damages by two factors. First, they are not primarily controlled by “real” damages to the victim and secondly, they are a method of punishing the negligent party in order to discourage both the defendant and others from repeating the behavior that gave rise to the imposition of punitive damages.
As a result of this, punitive damages cannot be sought in every case. In order to receive punitive damages, the conduct of the defendant must rise beyond simple fault to a level where the defendant’s conduct was particularly egregious. Thus, in order to be awarded punitive damages, the injured party must be able to prove to the satisfaction of the court that the defendant’s actions were not simply a result of negligence but rather active wrongdoing or malice.
The standard under Georgia state law for obtaining punitive damages is that the action must have a component that includes misconduct, fraud, oppression or otherwise demonstrate a knowing lack of concern about the consequences of the action. As a result of the specific requirements for obtaining punitive damages, it is vital that anyone who desires to know if and how they can obtain punitive damages from another party consult with a qualified attorney about the specifics of their case.
Examples of Punitive Damages
For example, a normal auto wreck may not allow for the imposition of punitive damages, because even if one party was at fault, the accident was due at most to negligence, rather than active wrongdoing. So even though a driver who rear ends another driver is responsible for the accident, the damages that can be awarded are limited to the actual damages, such as damage to the vehicle, medical expenses, and compensation for pain and suffering.
However, if the driver was intoxicated at the time of the accident, and especially if the driver had a pattern of arrests for driving under the influence, the victim can potentially have punitive damages awarded by the court. This is due to the fact that the driver, by driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, showed gross negligence and indifference to the probable results of his actions. In this way, punitive damages may be levied by the court to further punish the defendant for his actions.
In addition to individuals, punitive damages can also be levied against organizations using the same standards that apply to individuals. In this case, the organization or company may have knowingly failed to maintain equipment or allowed its employees to engage in dangerous or illegal behavior without taking action against them. In some cases, punitive damages may be sought against both the company and individual employees.
If an individual was injured by a truck driver who was driving under the influence of drugs, punitive damages might be levied not simply against the driver, but the company itself. In this case, if the company was discovered to have tolerated the driver’s hazardous actions, even though the management had proof that the individual was making use of drugs during business hours, the company’s indifference to the likely consequences of their employee’s actions could lead to the court imposing punitive damages.
In other cases, a company’s negligence can result in punitive damages even though no individual employee is accused of a direct act of wrongdoing. For example, if an amusement park engaged in the practice of using substandard parts in their rides, and a ride should later break down and injure a patron, the park management could be subject to punitive damages, although no individual ride operator would be personally liable for punitive damages.
The question of determining what parties or individuals may be faced with punitive damages is an extremely complex one. For that reason it is imperative that anyone involved in an accident immediately consult with a skilled personal injury lawyer who can determine if punitive damages can be sought and how best to go about obtaining punitive damages.
Limits to Punitive Damages
Beyond the fact that punitive damages require actions beyond a simple accident to be awarded at all, there can be other limits on the size of any punitive damage award. Georgia law places a limit on punitive damages that do not include certain aggravating factors.
In many cases, the total amount of punitive damages will be capped at $250,000. However, if there is a component of actual malice, for example, if a driver not only rear-ended the victim’s car, but also did so intentionally, then the cap is lifted. In addition, when drugs or other impairing substances are involved, other than legal prescription drugs, there is no limit to the total amount of punitive damages.
Equally, punitive damages stemming from judgments in lawsuits involving defective or improperly used products are not capped. Furthermore, due to the interest the state has in penalizing companies that fail to ensure that their products are safe for the public, punitive damage awards in product liability cases can be quite large.
This question of whether or not the limit to punitive damages will apply makes determining the mental or physical state of the defendant extremely important for purposes of obtaining the largest possible award. As a result of this, seeking out punitive damages, especially when attempting to show reason to lift the cap, can be a very complex undertaking.
What Parties Can Receive Punitive Damages
It is important to note that the primary purpose of punitive damages it not to reward the plaintiff, but to punish the defendant. For that reason, Georgia punitive damages mostly go to the state. Of the total amount of punitive damages, 75 percent will be taken by the state with the remainder awarded to the plaintiff. This percentage is calculated after a proportional amount of the costs of the case to the plaintiff is deducted from the total sum of the punitive damages. Therefore, it is in the plaintiff’s interests to obtain the largest possible sum in order to increase the compensation he or she will obtain after the trial is concluded.
It must be stressed that punitive damages are not related to, and do not influence the amount of compensatory damages the injured party may receive. They are a separate component to any legal action against a negligent or malicious individual or organization, and are calculated using different methods. An individual who is rendered completely disabled in an auto accident, for example, could receive far more than the $250,000 cap on punitive damages, due to the fact that his or her compensatory damages would take into account the fact that the injured party could no longer work and thus would be unable to support him or herself.
Finding Assistance in Obtaining Punitive Damages
As a result of the complexity of the law surrounding punitive damages field, anyone feeling that they have cause to seek punitive damages should immediately contact an attorney. It will be necessary to carefully obtain and present evidence, not merely to establish which party was at fault, but that one party behaved in a manner justifying the awarding of punitive damages.
To do this, the plaintiff will require the assistance of a law firm that is skilled in seeking punitive damages and has the resources to effectively obtain information and interview witnesses in order to build a compelling body of evidence. In addition, skilled attorneys with experience in presenting these cases to judges and juries will be needed to ensure the construction of an irrefutable case for the imposition of punitive damages.
Those seeking information about how to most effectively obtain punitive damages, should contact the Law Offices of Eric J. Hertz, P.C. in order to have their particular case effectively evaluated. By doing so, those who have suffered from the negligence of others can be informed of all of their legal options by qualified and dedicated attorneys who can assist them in bringing their case to a successful resolution.