When Are Punitive Damages Awarded in Florida Car Accident Cases?

If you were seriously injured in a car accident that someone else caused, you may be entitled to compensatory damages such as medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering. If the defendant acted with particularly egregious behavior, it might also be possible to obtain a punitive award.

Punitive damages are awarded to punish the defendant and to deter similar misconduct in the future. These damages are not awarded frequently. Pursuant to Section 768.72 of the Florida Statutes, the courts may award punitive damages if the defendant acted with intentional misconduct or gross negligence. That means if the defendant acted with ordinary negligence—which is usually the case—punitive damages will not be available.

Read on for the answers to some frequently asked questions about punitive damages in car accident cases:

What Do “Intentional Misconduct” and “Gross Negligence” Mean?

Intentional misconduct means the defendant was aware that their behavior put other people at an increased risk of injury or death but ignored the danger and acted anyway. If a driver purposely hit you, it may be possible to obtain a punitive award on the basis of intentional misconduct.

Gross negligence means the defendant acted with a conscious disregard for the rights, lives, or safety of others. Examples of gross negligence include operating a vehicle at a particularly reckless speed or driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Punitive damages might also be available in a wrongful death claim if the defendant has been charged (or may be charged) with manslaughter. They may also be warranted if the defendant fled the scene of the accident, was engaging in criminal behavior and caused the crash, or knowingly drove a vehicle that was unsafe—for example, a vehicle that had faulty brakes.

Courts in Florida cannot award punitive damages against a government entity.

Are There Caps on Punitive Damages in Florida?

In most cases, yes. The typical cap on punitive damages is three times the compensatory damages or $500,000, whichever is greater; however, if the liable party was motivated by financial gain, the cap jumps to four times the compensatory damages or $2 million. There is no cap on punitive damages if the defendant acted with an intent to harm.

What Other Kinds of Damages Might Be Recoverable After an Auto Accident?

The two categories of damages that may be awarded in a tort claim are “compensatory damages” and “punitive damages.” Any successful auto accident claim will yield compensatory damages of some amount. These include both economic and non-economic losses such as:

  • Medical Expenses: Any bills that have accrued for emergency care and other medical treatment can be accounted for in the settlement calculations. If you’re going to need ongoing care, your car accident attorney can account for future medical expenses, as well.
  • Lost Wages and Benefits: The income you lost while recovering from the crash may be recoverable. If you are expected to lose future income and benefits as a result of the accident, they can also be part of the settlement calculations.
  • Property Damage: You may be reimbursed for the cost of repairing your vehicle (or replacing it).
  • Other Direct Financial Losses: Any necessary and reasonable costs that you can prove resulted from the collision might be recoverable. In addition to the aforementioned expenses, for example, you may be reimbursed for alternative transportation, child care, and domestic assistance.
  • Pain and Suffering: If the injury has resulted in physical pain or mental suffering due to scarring, disfigurement, or permanent disability, your car accident lawyer can approximate a fair value for these non-economic damages.
  • Loss of Life Enjoyment: Your attorney will want to find out the specific ways the injuries are diminishing your quality of life. If you’ve suffered a permanent disability and have missed social or familial events as a result, or if you’ve been confined to bedrest for an extended period of time, these facts might make your claim for non-economic damages more compelling due to the loss of life enjoyment.
  • Emotional Distress: If you’ve experienced severe depression, grief, anxiety, irritability, or fear due to the accident, it may be possible to obtain damages for emotional distress.
  • Loss of Consortium: The family members of a car crash victim often endure tremendous suffering. In the state of Florida, the spouse of a person who is injured in a tortious accident might be entitled to loss of consortium. These damages encompass the loss of sexual intimacy, companionship, society, solace, and affection.

What Evidence Might My Attorney Use to Prove Damages?

Even if the plaintiff and defense agree on liability, a fair settlement or verdict will not be won without sufficient evidence of damages. Your car accident attorney must be able to prove the kinds of damages incurred and their value.

It’s not uncommon for insurance companies to dispute the damages calculations. They might argue that the medical costs are overestimated, for example, or that the injuries aren’t severe enough to prevent the victim from working. A skilled car accident attorney can help you avoid or counter these defenses by gathering all available evidence of damages, and performing the calculations in accordance with the relevant case law and statutes.

Valuable evidence of compensatory damages may include:

  • The Police Report: The responding officer may have written a description of the property damage and injuries sustained in the crash.
  • Financial Records: Evidence of lost income may include 1099s, paystubs, and work contracts.
  • Medical Records: Documentation of your medical visits and treatments, diagnostic imaging, prescription records, and lab test results can be used as evidence of damages.
  • Property Repair or Replacement Estimates: Even if your vehicle doesn’t need to be replaced, the cost of repairs could be exorbitant depending on the extent of the damage, the ease of obtaining parts, and other factors. If the insurance company asserts that the estimates for property damage are too high, your attorney might counter using documentation that shows the typical cost of the required parts and repairs. It may also be necessary to take deposition from a mechanic.
  • Receipts for Economic Damages: You should start tracking your expenses carefully from the day of the accident onward. There are all sorts of costs that can be included in a personal injury claim. In fact, any reasonable and necessary expenses arising from the accident might be recoverable. Examples include domestic assistance, vehicle modifications, and transportation. Your attorney can help you account for all potentially recoverable damages, which may include damages you would have overlooked. Be sure to save all receipts and invoices for costs that might somehow be associated with your injuries or the crash.
  • Your Personal Injury Journal: Writing daily entries about your symptoms, medication side effects, and how the injuries are affecting your wellbeing may help your attorney build a more compelling case for non-economic damages.
  • Deposition from Close Friends, Family, and Colleagues: Deposition might be taken from people with whom you are close to prove how the injuries are diminishing your quality of life.
  • Expert Witness Deposition: There are many kinds of expert witnesses who might be deposed if your case proceeds to discovery. Examples include medical experts, financial experts, vocational experts, and accident reconstruction experts.

If you intend to seek punitive damages, essential evidence may include:

  • The Police Report: If the driver who hit you was arrested, there’s a good chance it was for a behavior that constituted gross negligence. For example, if they were arrested for fleeing the scene or driving while under the influence of alcohol, punitive damages might be available.
  • The Defendant’s Criminal History: Your claim for punitive damages might be stronger if the defendant’s criminal record shows that they had engaged in similarly egregious misconduct in the past.
  • The Toxicology Report: If the driver was drunk, your lawyer will want to review their toxicology report to find out if their BAC was especially high.
  • Receipts from the Liable Party: If the liable driver was drunk, any timestamped receipts from the bar might contribute to your claim for punitive damages.
  • Surveillance Footage: If a surveillance system filmed the crash, its footage might show that the at-fault driver acted with gross negligence. If the defendant was drunk, your attorney might search for surveillance footage of the establishment where they were drinking.
  • Expert Witness Deposition: What was the defendant doing just before the collision? An accident reconstruction expert can try to answer this question by analyzing property damage, photos of the scene, and other evidence. The deposition of an accident reconstruction expert may therefore be used to prove the defendant acted with gross negligence—for example, by traveling well over the speed limit when the crash occurred.

Call 772-266-5555 for a Free Consultation with a Stuart Car Accident Attorney

If you or someone in your family was seriously hurt in an auto accident, contact Donaldson & Weston. Our team will help you account for all damages that might be recoverable including punitive damages. For a free, no-obligation consultation with a car accident lawyer in Stuart, call 772-266-5555 or send us a message.