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What Are Punitive Damages?

Updated: Aug 6, 2022

In a personal injury trial, punitive damages might be awarded to you as a way to punish the party responsible for your injuries and losses—and serve as a cautionary example to others.

This blog entry explains punitive damages, which might be awarded to you above and beyond the “real value” of your personal injury claim. Q&As include:

  1. What are the different categories of damages specific to personal injury settlements

  2. What are punitive damages?

  3. What are special damages?

  4. What are noneconomic damages?

  5. What does the “real value” of a claim mean?

  6. What is personal-injury tort law?

  7. What factors does a court consider for awarding punitive damages?

  8. How are punitive damage award amounts calculated?

  9. Why are punitive damages sometimes reduced?

  10. What some examples of punitive damage awards?

  11. What is a bifurcated trial?

  12. Why should you hire a personal injury lawyer?

  13. How do I begin a personal injury claim for mental pain and suffering?

  14. How much does it cost to hire a personal injury lawyer?

1. What are the different categories of damages specific to personal injury settlements?

There are three categories of damages specific to personal injury settlements. These are special damages; noneconomic damages, and the focus of this blog entry: punitive damages.

Together, “special” and “noneconomic” damages are often referred to as “compensatory damages.”

2. What are punitive damages?

Punitive damages are awarded to you above and beyond the “real value” of your claim as a way to punish (and make a cautionary example of) the at-fault party (see 3). Thereby, the at-fault party and others are highly discouraged from repeating whatever behavior caused your injuries and losses. Punitive damages are always in addition to the compensatory damages awarded to you. They are never awarded alone.

3. What are special damages?

Special damages are also called “hard cost” or economic damages. They represent the measurable amounts of money that you have lost and will continue to lose because of the at fault party’s negligence (e.g., medical bills and lost wages).

4. What are noneconomic damages?

Noneconomic damages are commonly referred to as “pain and suffering” and are also called “general damages.” They are money paid to you for any intangible losses you have endured and will continue to suffer because of the at-fault party’s negligence (e.g., psychological injury).

5. What does the “real value” of a claim mean?

Each personal injury claim features unique facts and circumstances that affect its value, so it is not possible to place an exact amount on your claim. Nonetheless, after reviewing the facts of your case, your personal injury attorney can give you an estimate of what your claim might be worth. Things you will discuss during your initial consultation might include:

  • The severity of your injuries. Logically, severe injuries receive more compensation than those that are minor or less severe. E.g., a broken leg will heal and you will have a full recovery. Conversely, a shattered ankle will have lifelong consequences.

  • The nature of your injuries. Certain injuries present additional emotional and/or physical challenges. E.g., one who suffers permanent visible scars or burns from an accident will probably receive more compensation than one who has no permanent scarring.

  • Your long-term prognosis. If a full recovery is unlikely (e.g., spinal cord or traumatic brain injuries), you will probably be awarded more compensation for your personal injury claim.

  • Your total economic loss. Economic loss is calculated across various sources. These include but are not limited to:

◦ Medical expenses

◦ Rehabilitation costs

◦ Lost wages

◦ Costs for replacement services (E.g. the need to hire cleaning, handyman,

lawn care, or other services)

  • Impact of injuries on your life. This takes into consideration “noneconomic losses” such as loss of consortium, pain and suffering, reduced quality of life, as well as other ways your injuries affect your relationships and your ability to live your life as you did before you were injured (see 4).

  • Insurance policy limits. These might prevent you from collecting the full amount of your claim. E.g., In a car accident, if your attorney values your claim at $1.5 million, you might only be able to collect $500,000 because the at-fault driver is only insured to a that amount.

  • Comparative fault. The value of your claim might be reduced by the proportion at which you were partially at fault for the accident. E.g., if it is determined that you were 20 percent at fault, your claim might be reduced by that amount.

6. What is personal-injury tort law?

The goal of personal injury tort law is to protect you if you are injured physically and/or emotionally because of what some other party did or failed to do. In a successful tort claim, you are sufficiently compensated by the at-fault party (see source).

There are four elements to torts:

  • Duty. A tort can occur when person owes another a duty of care but fails to fulfill it. I.e., Every person owes a duty to all others to use reasonable care to avoid causing injury to them or their property (see source).

  • Breach. A breach is a violation of a law or duty. A person must breach his or her duty in order to be liable for negligence (see source).

  • Injury. An injury is a harm suffered by a person due to some act or omission by another that can give rise to the level of a civil claim (see source).

  • Causation. You must prove that someone (the defendant) caused the injury. There are two kinds of causation: factual (or actual) cause and proximate cause.

7. What factors does a court consider for awarding punitive damages?

A court and/or jury must be convinced that the actions of the at-fault party exceed mere negligence. I.e., demonstrating a clear disregard for the principles of care and safety. To prove this, you need clear and convincing evidence that the at-fault party acted deliberately with a malevolent or wrongful motive. In contrast, the standard of proof for other kinds of tort law only require a preponderance of the evidence. A court and/or jury will also take into account whether punitive damages have been awarded in similar cases.

8. How are punitive damage award amounts calculated?

To determine the amount of punitive damages, juries are instructed to consider: (1) The reprehensibility of the conduct of the at-fault party. (2) The financial condition of the at-fault party. (3) The relationship to actual damages.

Actual calculation of the amount varies depending upon the state in which you reside. More specifically:

  • The actions of the at-fault party must amount to something more than mere negligence. I.e., the party must have acted with a clear disregard for the principles of care and safety. E.g., an intentional tort such as assault or battery.

  • Punitive damages are generally awarded in addition to compensatory damages, which are damages intended to reimburse you for your economic losses.

  • In most states, punitive damages must be in proportion to compensatory ones. A common restriction is that punitive damages cannot exceed four times the amount of compensatory ones.

9. Why are punitive damages sometimes reduced?

The primary reason that your punitive damages might be reduced is because your state has a cap on them. I.e., they cannot exceed a certain amount. Also, judges might reduce punitive damages if they believe that a jury has not properly followed their instructions. They also might do so if it is determined that the at-fault party has remedied whatever caused your injuries and losses—and/or has already been adequately punished.

10. What some examples of punitive damage awards?

We will cite two here:

Case 1

Thomas v. Charter Communications. In Texas, an 83-year-old grandmother, Betty Jo McClain Thomas, was robbed and murdered by a Spectrum cable repairman, Roy James Holden, who arrived at her home in a company van while off the clock. Holden pleaded guilty to the murder of Thomas and has been sentenced to life in prison.

Attorneys for Thomas said that Holden had lied about his past jobs and that Charter Communications, the company that owns Spectrum, failed to verify his employment history. Had the company done so, it would have discovered the lie, and Holden never would have been hired.

Court records show that there were many red flags that Spectrum ignored. Among them, he had:

  • Accumulated disciplinary actions

  • Taken pictures of driver’s licenses and credit cards at the homes of two elderly female customers

  • Asked his operations manager for money

  • Requested mental health intervention through Charter’s employee assistance program

Yet, he was still sent on field calls, and he was scheduled to work at Thomas' house on Dec. 11, 2019 at 1:00 PM. He returned the next day and murdered her. (Incredibly, it was revealed during trial that after the murder, Charter sent an overdue bill to Thomas’ home that included $58.94 in charges for Holden’s work, which was eventually referred to a collection agency for nonpayment.)

In March 2021, Charter submitted documents to the court that showed Thomas had agreed to the company’s terms of service, which included an arbitration agreement, doing so by checking a small box when she paid her bill online. But when Thomas’ attorneys contacted her credit card company, they found she paid her bill over the phone, not online.

Charter also submitted a workorder for the Dec. 11 repair, apparently signed by Thomas, which also included an arbitration agreement. But such a workorder would have been signed after the Holden finished his work, and this one was signed at 12:59 P.M., a minute before Holden was scheduled to start the job. Also, when Thomas’ family members saw the signature, they knew it did not belong to her, as it was simply signed and misspelled, “Bety.”

The upshot: Last July the jury ordered Charter Communications to pay seven billion dollars in punitive damages above the $337.5 million awarded in compensatory ones (see source).

Case 2

Chiara v. Dernago. Sean Dernago was driving his employer’s truck in May 2005 weaving in and out fairly heavy traffic. He rear-ended a pickup truck, causing it to strike a minivan driven by Frank Chiara. His wife Venetia was a front seat passenger and their eight-year old triplet sons were in the rear. Venetia and one of her sons were injured.

Dernago was arrested at the scene for driving while intoxicated. In the damages portion of a bifurcated trial, the jurors returned a verdict for pain and suffering of $160,000 and $70,000 for punitive damages.

Both damages were affirmed on appeal. The punitive damages were based on the evidence that Dernago was two times beyond the legal drinking limit, displaying wanton and reckless behavior (see source).

11. What is a bifurcated trial?

A trial is said to be bifurcated if it is conducted in two stages, effectively becoming two separate trials. In bifurcated personal injury trials, liability is tried in the first stage and damages are tried in the second (see source). In the first phase, evidence regarding damage amounts is forbidden. Thus, there is a clear distinction between evidence affecting liability vs. evidence affecting damage amounts. This ostensibly affords jurors a more accurate understanding of the issues, preventing confusion. Many state supreme courts and legislatures have mandated that punitive damages be tried separately if the defendant so requests.

12. Why should you hire a personal injury lawyer?

Accidents can be life-changing, adversely impacting your mental health, career, family, quality of life, and interpersonal relations. Quantifying all these harms and how they interact is essential to securing satisfactory compensation for what you are experiencing now and might endure in the future.

Your damage claim must be carefully researched to estimate the cost or value for long-term medical care, physical and vocational rehabilitation, pain and suffering, lost wages, quality of life, and more.

A personal injury attorney possesses the experience and resources to navigate large-scale, complex litigation against negligent drivers, business conglomerates, healthcare corporations, government, and any other negligent entities.

Also be mindful that paying you the smallest possible compensation is endemic to the insurance company business model. They are not on your side; nor are their agents who will want to interview you. Personal injury attorneys leverage their professional knowledge of insurance company tactics to protect your legitimate interests for fair and complete compensation.

13. How do I begin a personal injury claim for mental pain and suffering?

Galindo Law offers you a 20+ year legacy of winning and recovering financial compensation for personal injury, accident, and insurance claims.

Our personal injury attorneys have a strong and proven record across the most involved and complicated personal injury cases, evaluating damages, identifying liable parties, and delivering results nationwide.

Galindo personal injury lawyers stand ready to listen to your concerns and guide you about how to proceed with your personal injury case.

14. How much does it cost to hire a personal injury lawyer?

Galindo Law does not charge any upfront or out of pocket fees. We are only paid a percentage of the settlement we are able to secure for you. So by working with Galindo Law, you incur zero financial risk.

Remember, when it comes to a personal injury claim, you are not asking for charity. You deserve to be adequately compensated for your loss

Or, if you prefer, email us.

And thank you for reading our blog!


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