Occasionally, you may read in the news about a high-profile injury or discrimination case that ends with a huge award for the plaintiff. For example, in a 2014 case out of Southern California, AutoZone was ordered to pay $185 million in punitive damages to a former AutoZone manager in a pregnancy discrimination case. The truth, of course, is that discrimination and injury awards that large make the news simply because they are so rare.
Thus, if you file a personal injury claim in the state of Florida – for any reason – you should not expect to walk away with anything close to $185 million. Statistical studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice have found that punitive damages are awarded in only about two percent of the civil cases that actually go to trial in the United States. The typical punitive damage award, according to the Justice Department, falls between $38,000 and $50,000.
In Florida, if you are injured in an accident in traffic, at work, or on someone else’s property, and if you can prove – with the help of an experienced Tampa personal injury attorney – that another party was negligent and therefore liable for your injury, you are entitled under the law to complete financial compensation for all of your injury-related expenses and losses, including any lost wages.
WHAT KINDS OF COMPENSATION ARE INJURY VICTIMS AWARDED?
This compensation is known as “damages” in personal injury law, and in the state of Florida, two types of damages can be awarded to plaintiffs in personal injury cases: “compensatory” damages and “punitive” damages (sometimes called “exemplary” damages).
In this state, compensatory damages include:
Medical treatment: Compensatory damages include all of a plaintiff’s medical expenses from the first diagnosis of the injury to any and all ongoing and future costs for medical visits, surgeries, prescriptions, treatments, therapy, and rehabilitation. A severe or permanently disabling injury will require the maximum possible compensation.
Lost wages: Compensatory damages include full reimbursement for lost wages from missing work as a result of the injury. When an injury is long-term or permanent, compensatory damages can include reimbursement for lost earning capacity in the future.
Property damage: Compensatory damages cover the cost of any property that was damaged or destroyed as a result of the accident.
Pain and suffering: Compensatory damages also compensate plaintiffs for the physical pain that they have endured as a result of the injury.
Emotional distress: Florida allows compensatory damages for a plaintiff’s emotional distress as a result of the injury. Anxiety, depression, and insomnia are examples of emotional distress. Emotional distress can also include “loss of the enjoyment of life” damages when your ability to enjoy life has been significantly reduced because of the injury.
Loss of consortium: Compensatory damages may be awarded for loss of consortium in wrongful death cases as well as cases where a severe injury has damaged a couple’s ability to enjoy intimacy.
HOW ARE PUNITIVE DAMAGES AWARDED IN FLORIDA?
Unlike compensatory damages, punitive damages are concerned with the defendant rather than the plaintiff. Punitive damages are awarded to punish egregious wrongdoing and are designed to deter such wrongdoing from ever occurring again. Although compensation is not the purpose of punitive damages, the plaintiff receives any punitive damages awarded.
Some states do not recognize or award punitive damages. For example, punitive damages are unavailable under any circumstances in Louisiana, Nebraska, Puerto Rico, and the state of Washington. However, in the state of Florida, plaintiffs may receive punitive damage awards in two particular circumstances.
To be awarded punitive damages in a Florida personal injury case, a plaintiff must be able to prove, with the help of an experienced personal injury lawyer, that either “intentional misconduct” occurred or that “gross negligence” occurred. Under Florida law, “intentional misconduct” means that a defendant knew that his or her behavior was wrong or dangerous and that someone would likely be injured by it. “Gross negligence” is defined as extremely reckless or careless behavior that constitutes indifference to life, safety, and the rights of others.
Most personal injury cases do not allow for punitive damages because in most personal injury cases, the defendant’s conduct is not found to be either grossly negligent or intentional. In those rare instances where there is a finding of gross negligence or intentional misconduct, Florida caps the amount of punitive damages that can be awarded. The state of Florida limits punitive damages to three times the amount of the compensatory damages or $500,000, whichever is greater – in most cases.
However, in personal injury cases where a defendant’s intentional misconduct was motivated purely by the opportunity for financial gain, even when that conduct was likely to result in injury, the court can award punitive damages up to the amount of $2 million or four times the amount of the compensatory damages, whichever is greater. Those are the rules for standard personal injury, premises liability, and product liability lawsuits.
WHAT ABOUT PUNITIVE DAMAGES IN MEDICAL MALPRACTICE CASES?
Medical malpractice cases are handled somewhat differently in this state. Florida imposes a $500,000 cap on punitive damages in medical malpractice lawsuits against practitioners (doctors and other care providers), while the cap increases to $750,000 in medical malpractice lawsuits against non-practitioner defendants.
However, a number of exceptions can apply under Florida law in both medical malpractice cases and all other types of personal injury cases, and judges in Florida are allowed to ignore damage caps when a specific case genuinely merits a larger punitive damage award.
Juries in this state are not instructed about damage caps before they deliberate personal injury and medical malpractice cases. That allows a jury to consider what they genuinely believe an award should be and to share that thinking with the court.
It’s important to remember that there are no caps on compensatory damages in Florida personal injury and medical malpractice cases. Caps apply only to punitive damages.
It’s also important to remember that every case is different and that exceptions to the legal rules are quite numerous. That’s why you must have the advice of an experienced Tampa personal injury attorney if you have been injured in central Florida by negligence or by intentional misconduct. An experienced Florida personal injury lawyer can review your claim, examine the evidence, and determine if punitive damages are appropriate in your own case.