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What are Punitive Damages & How Do They Work?

What are Punitive Damages & How Do They Work?

The courts in New York are not usually interested in punishing people when hearing personal injury claims. Punishment is typically left to the criminal courts. Civil courts in the state focus on compensating accident victims for their losses when they have been hurt by the negligence of another person. Sometimes though, when a defendant has shown gross negligence or carelessness, the civil courts do turn their focus to punishment in an effort to deter the defendant from behaving in such a manner in the future.

The civil courts are unable to punish a defendant by sentencing them to high fines or jail time. As such, the only way in which they can punish a defendant is through punitive damages, which are a separate type of financial compensation in personal injury claims. Punitive damages are not always awarded. In fact, they rarely are. Still, if punitive damages apply in your case, you could be eligible for a significant amount of compensation. 

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What are Punitive Damages?

The compensatory damages available in personal injury claims typically include losses such as medical expenses, lost income, pain and suffering, and funeral costs. As the name suggests, these damages are intended to compensate the accident victim for any losses they directly sustained as a result of the accident. Punitive damages are not meant to compensate the accident victim. They are awarded for the sole intention of punishing the negligent defendant and discouraging them from acting in the same egregious manner in the future.

Punitive damages are awarded in addition to compensatory damages in personal injury claims. Although they are not always awarded, the amount of punitive damages awarded can far exceed the amount of compensatory damages awarded.

When are Punitive Damages Awarded in Personal Injury Cases?

There is no concrete rule for determining when a court will award punitive damages. In some cases, a specific statute may include the option for punitive damages, but more commonly, the court will decide when punitive damages are appropriate. Ordinary negligence is not enough for the court to award punitive damages. The accident victim must show the defendant engaged in extreme and perhaps even immoral conduct. Some examples of when a court may award punitive damages are when a case involves the following factors:

  • A serious injury or death caused by a reckless or impaired driver
  • Car, trucks, or motorcycle accidents caused by driving at excessive speeds
  • Nursing homes that willfully disregard the rights or wellbeing of its residents
  • Defendants that were committing a crime at the time the injury was sustained, such as robbery or sexual assault
  • A large corporation is involved and the court feels as though punitive damages will force the company to take the allegations and verdict seriously

The above are only some of the most common examples of situations that may warrant punitive damages. A wide range of other scenarios may also make punitive damages available. On the other hand, punitive damages may also not be awarded in the above situations, depending on the facts of the case.

How Much are Punitive Damages Worth in Personal Injury Cases?

Just as no one can determine whether punitive damages are available without reviewing the facts of the case, it is also impossible to determine how much they are worth when awarded. Many people have heard that punitive damages are ten times the amount of compensatory damages. This is a helpful guideline to use when estimating the amount of punitive damages, but it is not a hard and fast rule. The punitive damages awarded in any case can be more or less than ten times the amount of compensatory damages.

When awarding punitive damages, judges and juries will take several factors into consideration. These include:

  • The nature and severity of the damages
  • The defendant’s conduct and the egregiousness of their behavior
  • A fair amount that will communicate a clear message to the defendant and the general public

New York law does not place a cap, or limit, on the punitive damages plaintiffs can receive. However, punitive damages should never be excessive or disproportionate to the losses a plaintiff incurred or the egregious act. Still, when punitive damages are awarded, they are often substantial.

Proving Punitive Damages

Just as you will have to prove other elements of your case, such as that the defendant acted negligently, you must also prove that punitive damages are appropriate in your case. To do this, you must show the defendant acted with complete disregard for your health or safety. 

Unlike when proving ordinary negligence, you must provide clear evidence that shows the conduct of the defendant rose to the level of “willful and wanton” disregard for your safety. This is a much higher standard of proof. When proving ordinary negligence, you must only show that the defendant “more likely than not” acted carelessly.

The Statute of Limitations Still Applies

Punitive damages are different from compensatory damages, but the statute of limitations still applies. The statute of limitations is the amount of time you have to file your claim. If you do not file your claim before the statute of limitations expires, you will forfeit your right to collect any damages at all, including punitive damages. Under New York law, the statute of limitations on personal injury claims is generally three years from the date of the accident. While there are exceptions, they are limited, so it is important to file your claim as soon as possible after any accident.

Get Legal Help Today

Punitive damages can greatly increase the amount of overall damages you are awarded, but they are not easy to obtain. At Silberstein, Awad & Miklos, P.C., our New York personal injury attorneys have the necessary experience to build a strong case after your accident that will help you claim the maximum damages you deserve.

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