Punitive Damages

Courts award three kinds of damages in response to a valid personal injury claim. These include economic damages, non-economic damages, and punitive damages. Since courts are reluctant to award punitive damages, most plaintiffs do not receive them even if they win their claim. 

Some plaintiffs do win punitive damages, however. Understanding punitive damages can help you be prepared for what to expect in your personal injury case. 

The Purpose of Awarding Punitive Damages

Economic damages and non-economic damages are compensatory. That means their purpose is to compensate the plaintiff for their losses. 

By contrast, there are two purposes for punitive damages–punishment and deterrence. In the interests of justice, someone who acts outrageously should not be able to “get away with” paying only compensatory damages. Punitive damages also give parties a reason to avoid doing something due to fear of the consequences. Courts award punitive damages to deter defendants from repeating their behavior and to deter the public from imitating it.

What You Have to Prove to Win a Punitive Damages Claim

Tennessee has enacted a statute permitting the award of punitive damages under the following circumstances:

  • If the defendant acted intentionally: If the defendant’s purpose was to injure you, or the defendant acted with certain knowledge that you would suffer injury.
  • If the defendant acted fraudulently: The defendant relied on fraud and consequently injured you. An example would be deliberately selling you a dangerously defective product.
  • The defendant acted recklessly: The defendant was aware of the risk of injury and deliberately chose to ignore it.

Someone who claims punitive damages must prove their entitlement to them by “clear and convincing evidence.” This is a higher standard of proof than the standard that ordinarily applies to personal injury claims.

A court must also consider the following factors when determining whether to award you punitive damages and how much to award:

  • The defendant’s financial condition
  • The nature of the defendant’s wrongdoing 
  • The impact of the defendant’s conduct on you
  • The relationship of the defendant with you
  • The defendant’s awareness of the amount of harm they caused
  • The defendant’s motivation in causing you harm 
  • The duration of the defendant’s misconduct
  • Whether the defendant attempted to conceal their misconduct
  • The expenses you incurred trying to recover your losses 
  • Whether the defendant profited from their conduct
  • Whether previous punitive damages have ever been awarded against the defendant  
  • Whether the defendant took remedial action

A jury can consider any other relevant circumstances when determining the amount of punitive damages and whether to award them. 

When Are Punitive Damages Awarded?

The following scenarios might generate a successful punitive damages claim:

  • A driver intentionally crashes into a pedestrian in a fit of “road rage”;
  • A landlord refuses to repair a dangerous electrical malfunction, resulting in the electrocution of the defendant.
  • A dog owner ‘sics’ his dog on someone without provocation.
  • A nightclub bouncer uses excessive force against a customer.
  • A construction company deliberately disregards safety standards, leading to the plaintiff’s catastrophic injury.
  • A doctor intentionally administers an experimental, harmful treatment to a patient.
  • A property owner sets ‘booby traps’ on their property, seriously injuring a child trespasser.
  • A driver causes a DUI accident.

While punitive damages are rarely awarded, several egregious situations could result in the justification of punitive damages. There is no scenario, however, that absolutely guarantees punitive damages.

Statutory Limits on Punitive Damages

Tennessee places statutory limits on the amount of many punitive damages awards. These limitations prevent insurance companies from raising their rates on everyone so that they can afford to pay out punitive damages awards for their customers. 

This cap amounts to twice the amount of compensatory damages (economic damages + noneconomic damages) or $500,000, whichever is greater. Tennessee’s punitive damages caps have endured legal challenges and were once declared unconstitutional. The limits, however, have survived legal challenges so far.

Damage caps may not apply if the defendant:

  • Injured you through a specific intent to inflict serious injury
  • Fraudulently attempted to evade liability ( a hit and run accident, for example)
  • Was voluntarily intoxicated
  • The defendant’s actions resulted in a felony conviction in any jurisdiction

A court can still limit the defendant’s punitive damages even if one or more of the foregoing factors apply.

Limitations on Vicarious Liability for Punitive Damages

Normally, an employer is liable for damages when their employee, acting within the scope of their employment, causes harm through misconduct. Nevertheless, only under limited circumstances (such as negligent hiring) can a court impose punitive damages on an employer. 

If these limited circumstances do not apply, the employee is solely liable for any punitive damages a court might impose. The employer might still bear liability for economic and noneconomic damages.

Schedule a Free Initial Consultation With an Experienced Nashville Personal Injury Lawyer

You may or may not win punitive damages if you have a personal injury claim. Even compensatory damages, however, can add up to significant compensation. To understand your options, schedule a free initial consultation with a Nashville personal injury lawyer as soon as possible. 

Our legal team at Labrum Law Firm Personal Injury Lawyers aggressively defends you against contributory fault allegations. Contact us today or call at (615) 685-8546 to schedule a free case evaluation with an experienced Nashville personal injury attorney. We will fight to get you the maximum compensation for your personal injury case.