In a personal injury lawsuit, damages are sought by a plaintiff to recover what was lost as a result of the negligence or error of the other party.
These damages could include medical expenses accrued as a result of the injury, material damages to a property such as a vehicle, lost work as a result of injury, or ongoing therapy required for full and complete recovery. In some cases, a plaintiff may also seek punitive damages. Punitive damages are different from regular damages in that they are sought in an effort to punish the at-fault party for negligence and prevent others from engaging in that type of risky behavior.
Punitive damages are much less often rewarded. While the vast majority of personal injury lawsuits involve an at-fault party who engaged in negligence or error causing damages to the person and property of another, those lawsuits that seek punitive damages do so because it can be proven that the defendant acted recklessly or even maliciously, actively putting into risk the safety of others. Therefore, while the purpose of seeking damages is to compensate a plaintiff for their losses and return them to a state of wholeness in the eyes of legal recompensation, the purpose of seeking punitive damages is to specifically punish the defendant for their actions.
The actions that could lead to a punitive damages claim
- Oppression – defendant subjected the plaintiff to cruel or otherwise unjust hardship by withholding or denying their rights
- Willful misconduct – defendant consciously broke a law or otherwise acted in a way that brought harm to the plaintiff
- Intent to harm – defendant acted upon premeditated awareness of the potential for harm
- Fraud – defendant intentionally misrepresented a fact in order to harm the plaintiff
- Wantonness – defendant acted recklessly or otherwise excessively in a way that caused harm
- Malice – defendant acted with the intent to cause injury or was done with a willful disregard of others’ safety
- Cases in which the defendant was under the influence of drugs or alcohol
As one can see, because the above actions involve either recklessness or an active intent to cause harm, the plaintiff’s attorney could request that punitive damages be sought. The desire to seek punitive damages must be specified.
According to the New Jersey Punitive Damages Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:15-5.9, the amount of punitive damages that can be sought is limited to either five times the amount of compensatory damages awarded in the case or $350,000, whichever is greater. The only exception for this limit is specific cases that involve public policy and social concern, for which punitive damages will be determined on a case-by-case basis.
Additionally, in order for punitive damages to be awarded, the plaintiff must prove using clear evidence that the harm they suffered was the direct result of the defendant’s malevolent intention, as carried out in one of the above manners. While the evidence one must provide when seeking regular damages must only show the defendant’s liability for causing harm, the evidence related to punitive damages must show intent or specific recklessness. As such, it is much more difficult to be awarded punitive damages.
When reviewing a case seeking punitive damages, a jury will consider the following factors in addition to the evidence presented:
- the severity of harm that it appears the defendant’s conduct did to the plaintiff
- the level of awareness that the defendant had that their actions would cause significant harm to anyone in general and the plaintiff specifically
- the length of time that the defendant engaged in the harmful actions and the amount of people that were put at risk as a result of those actions
- the immediate steps the defendant took after becoming aware that their actions would soon cause or had already caused harm, including whether they stopped the action and whether they attempted to hide evidence of their having engaged in the action
- the personal financial capacity the defendant has to pay the punitive damages
Punitive damages are not covered by insurance, as they represent willful and reckless behavior. As such, a jury will review the defendant’s financial capacity to pay the punitive damages personally. In many cases, punitive damages are sought to deter wealthy people and corporations from abusing their power and financial status to engage in illegal and harmful activities.
Consult a Princeton Personal Injury Attorney Today
At Cohen & Riechelson, our attorneys are experienced in supporting our clients in Trenton, Princeton, Hamilton, and the greater Mercer County area in all matters of personal injury law.
Our approach ensures that our clients receive their fair share of compensation for damages, including punitive, for harm that was caused them.