Punitive damages can be a complicated legal issue. The injuries suffered by individuals who are in accidents with commercial vehicles are not just serious, they are frequently catastrophic. Many trucking accident victims suffer brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, burns, or the loss of a limb. In many cases, accidents involving commercial trucks and passenger cars result in the death of one or more individuals riding in the passenger car.
When a person dies or is paralyzed or permanently injured because of the negligence of another, it is normal to want to punish the wrongdoer.
Unfortunately, civil liability in most personal injury cases isn’t about punishing the negligent party. Rather, the focus of damages in a personal injury case is about making that person “whole” with regard to the expenses he/she incurred because of the other person’s negligence. In other words, civil liability focuses on compensating the injured individual by paying for all reasonable expenses, such as medical expenses or property damage. It rarely encompasses punishing the wrongdoer.
In most personal injury cases, then, it is fair to say that punitive damages are rarely sought and rarely granted by the Florida courts.
However, when it comes to commercial trucking accidents, that general rule does not apply.
In trucking accident cases, punitive damages not only can be sought, but are frequently asserted against a negligent truck driver or trucking company.
The Difference Between Compensatory Damages and Punitive Damages
For most personal injury cases, recoverable damages are generally compensatory damages.
As the name implies, compensatory damages are intended to compensate the victim for his/her damages. Thus, they cover both economic and non-economic damages.
Economic damages are essentially money damages. They are damages you can easily put a money value on, like medical bills, car repair bills, or transportation costs.
Non-economic damages, on the other hand, are damages that are difficult to put a monetary value on. Pain and suffering or loss of consortium are examples of non-economic damages.
Compensatory damages repay the personal injury victim for the economic and non-economic losses he incurred due to the defendant’s negligence.
Punitive damages, in contrast, are not intended to repay the plaintiff for his injuries. They are awarded along with compensatory damages, but the purpose of punitive damages is to punish the defendant for his conduct and to deter that defendant from ever engaging in such conduct again.
As a result, punitive damages are a harsh remedy disfavored by the courts in any but the most egregious situations.
Here are 3 Things to Know About Truck Accidents and Punitive Damages in Florida
In Florida, the court will not award punitive damages unless “intentional misconduct” or “gross negligence” can be established.
Because punitive damages are such a harsh remedy, the Florida courts will not impose them except in the most egregious of circumstances. To get punitive damages, then, a plaintiff must plead and prove by clear and convincing evidence either:
- That the defendant acted intentionally, or
- That the defendant acted with gross negligence.
For purposes of punitive damages, intentional conduct requires a showing that the defendant had “actual knowledge of the wrongfulness of the conduct” and that there was a “high probability” that such conduct would cause the plaintiff injury or damage.
Intentional conduct can be very difficult to prove and does not often fit the facts of a car accident, whether the accident involves commercial trucks or not. On the other hand, “gross negligence” does tend to fit the facts of commercial trucking accidents.
Gross negligence in this context requires a showing that the defendant’s actions evidenced recklessness or a conscious disregard for the life or safety of others. Truck drivers or trucking companies that violate federal rules governing fleet maintenance, weight restrictions, loading protocols, or rest hours, do so to make money. And so, their actions or inactions can constitute gross negligence and an indifference to the safety of others.
Punitive damages can be a significant amount of your recovery
Because the impact of an 80,000-pound semi-truck on a passenger car is so profoundly devastating, in commercial truck accident cases, an award of punitive damages can make up a good portion of a plaintiff’s total recovery.
If, for example, the facts of your case establish gross negligence on the part of the trucker or trucking company due to a deliberate violation of federal regulations, an award of punitive damages could constitute the major portion of your personal injury award. There are situations when a punitive damage award far exceeds all of the plaintiff’s other damages combined.
Florida law caps punitive damages
The one caution to add to the preceding information is that while it is true that an award of punitive damages can exceed a plaintiff’s compensatory damages, in Florida, punitive damages are capped.
Florida law does not allow punitive damages to get abusive. Instead, they are limited to three times the amount of compensatory damages or $500,000 – whichever is greater.
Punitive damages do not apply in every personal injury case, but in certain cases, like commercial trucking accidents, they can be an important part of a plaintiff’s recovery.
Truck Accident Attorneys in Orange Park, Florida.
John Fagan and his legal team are dedicated to helping those who have been injured due to the negligence of another or are disabled. Contact us here or call our firm at 777-JOHN. We serve clients throughout Florida. Our main office is in Orange Park, but we have consulting offices in Palatka, Middleburg, Keystone, Starke, Gainesville, and Ocala.