Compensatory Damages and Punitive Damages in Personal Injury Court

Attempting to pursue a personal injury claim can be a tedious and complicated process. The actions needed to make a successful case can be complex, and you will need an attorney who is knowledgeable in filing a personal injury suit to help you through the process. An experienced personal injury attorney has the skills to evaluate the soundness of your case and possible damages you may be awarded based on state law.

The defendant must be at fault for a case to be valid, and the plaintiff will have to prove that the defendant failed to prevent the incident from occurring. Did the defendant cause the harm done to the plaintiff?

From a legal perspective, cause is either actual or proximate. Actual cause is when the defendant’s actions caused the plaintiff’s injuries. For example, the plaintiff would not have suffered a concussion had the defendant not run a stop sign and hit the plaintiff’s car. Proximate cause when a defendant should have been able to foresee the future consequences. Did the defendant’s actions or omissions contribute to the plaintiff’s injuries?

Damages are the monetary award amount resulting from negligence in a personal injury suit as determined by a jury in civil court. Courts award civil damage to plaintiffs with the intent to restore them as much as possible to their condition before their injuries.

There are three basic types of civil damages, compensatory, general, and punitive.

Compensatory Damages

Compensatory or economic damages can cover an extensive area of damages. They provide compensation for financial expenses like medical bills, legal costs, loss of income, and costs associated with the loss or repair of property. These monetary awards are given to the plaintiff by a judge or jury as compensation in personal injury cases when the plaintiff successfully proves that the defendant was negligent or had unlawful conduct.

Compensatory damages are the actual cost incurred by the plaintiff because of the defendant’s negligence. They provide the money needed to replace the plaintiff’s financial loss and nothing else. The plaintiff must be able to provide evidence to substantiate the amount.

General Damages

General or non-economic damages include estimates of the losses that do not directly involve money. One of the most compensable non-economic damages is known as pain and suffering. According to the Legal Information Institute (LII), “pain and suffering refers to the physical discomfort and emotional distress that are compensable as non-economic damages. It refers to the pain, discomfort, anguish, inconvenience, and emotional trauma that accompanies an injury.” Generally, we divide it into two categories.

  • Physical pain and suffering can include pain caused by the injury or discomfort due to treatment or medication. The nature of both can be indicators of the degree of suffering.

Examples include brain injury, persistent pain, organ damage, nerve damage, and paralysis.

  • Emotional pain and suffering can include depression and anxiety caused by the injury, especially if it has a long-term or permanent consequence. The LII defines emotional distress as “mental suffering as an emotional response to an experience that arises from the effect or memory of a particular event, occurrence, pattern of events or condition.”

Examples include the emotional and mental suffering caused by brain injuries, persistent pain, organ damage, nerve damage, and paralysis.

Punitive Damages

Punitive, also known as exemplary damages in personal injury cases, are infrequent; they serve to punish the defendant and send a message to society for extreme negligence in some of the most severe injury cases. The court awards personal injury punitive damages as a public example and deterrent for those who choose to behave in a similar negligent manner.

What are some of the sources of damages?

Compensatory (Economic) Damages

·       Medical expenses: Surgery, medicine, and doctor visits related costs and bills.personal-injury-settlement-amounts
·       Missed wages: If the plaintiff had to lose work because of the injury.
·       Ongoing care: When an injury becomes long-term and needs more treatment.
·       Funeral costs: As the result of the accident, an individual dies.
·       Illness: Due to the injury.
·       Disability: when an injury becomes more permanent, requiring long-term assistance for medical bills and lost wages.

Punitive Damages

A judge or jury adds personal injury punitive damages to the compensatory and general damages in certain circumstances where the defendant has been recklessly and blatantly negligent. The amount is usually left to the jury’s discretion. Still, some states have laws limiting the punitive damage amount that a jury can award. The Supreme Court has said that four times the awarded compensatory damage is close to excessive but still Constitutional.

The purpose of punitive damages is to enact punishment on an individual or group. The Supreme court has found that excesses in punitive damages violate a person’s rights according to the Fourteenth Amendment, which protects someone from the loss of “life, liberty, or property without due process” or fair procedures.

How can attorneys help calculate economic or non-economic losses?

Compensatory or economic damages tend to be easier to calculate. The amount of money spent for the injury is demonstrable by examining hospital bills, costs of medicine, treatments, or calculating lost wages due to the injury.

Non-economic or general damages are more challenging to determine than compensatory. However, there is abundant case law and precedent to help judges and juries determine an appropriate amount. There are different methods to calculate general damage.

  • Multiplier method: The multiplier method calculates non-economic losses by multiplying the sum of the actual economic damages by a number related to the injury’s gravity.
  • Per diem (daily rate) method: This method establishes a fair daily rate that represents how the plaintiff has suffered since the injury, then multiplies the rate by the number of days spent recovering.

Frequently, courts use a combination of these two methods to determine non-economic losses. It is essential to remember that every case is very different, and a court evaluates each one individually. Other factors taken into account include the severity of the injury, how long the injury has lasted or is going to last, how it impacts their lives (work, sports, and hobbies), influence on the quality of life, and other harms that originated from the injury.

What are punitive damages?

Punitive damages are considered punishment and are generally awarded at the court’s discretion when it finds the defendant’s behavior especially harmful. Courts only include these types of damages when the plaintiff can prove that the defendant participated in an intentional tort or engaged in cruel and willful misconduct.

The following are cases where courts awarded personal injury punitive damages.

Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, 1994

In this case, Stella Liebeck suffered third-degree burns from the coffee she had purchased in the McDonald’s drive-thru. McDonald’s served their coffee at temperatures between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to cause third-degree burns in seconds. Additionally, customers had reported 700 other recent cases of burns from the restaurant’s coffee. Juries awarded Ms. Liebeck three million dollars in punitive damages because the food chain demonstrated a “callous disregard for the safety of the people.”

Bullock v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., 2002

Betty Bullock was a 64-year-old woman with inoperable lung cancer who filed a lawsuit against cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris. In the suit, Bullock blamed Philip Morris for her addiction to cigarettes. Bullock’s attorneys claimed that the cigarette manufacturer had known and kept hidden from the public that cigarettes were addictive and caused cancer since the 1950s. To make matters worse, the company had out and out lied about the benefits of smoking in their marketing campaigns. The jury awarded Ms. Bullock compensatory damages of $850,000 and punitive damages of $28 million. Philip Morris appealed the amount for the personal injury punitive damages. In 2009, six years after she had died, the court reduced the punitive damage amount to $13.8 million and awarded it to Ms. Bullock’s daughter.

What are punitive damages in a personal injury lawsuit?

Personal injury is also known as tort law. Therefore, in a personal injury case, punitive damages punish a defendant for egregious or intentional negligence resulting in the injury of another.

Negligence is one of the critical factors in a personal injury case. According to the LII, negligence is the “failure to behave with the level of care that someone of ordinary prudence would have exercised under the same circumstances.”

Critical components of negligence are:

  • Duty of care: A legal term referring to a person’s responsibility to prevent causing harm to another. The plaintiff must prove that the person acting with negligence owned responsibility in a duty of care and that that duty was violated.
  • Breach of duty: The injured person will need to attest exactly how the other party failed to meet their responsibilities (how their conduct “breached” the duty of care).
    • It involves a causal connection between the injured and the other party.
    • It also suggests a proximate cause, determining if the incident was foreseeable.
    • For punitive damages, it is essential to provide evidence proving that the other party was grossly negligent

How does a court determine personal injury punitive damages?

Determining personal injury punitive damages depends on how careless and negligent the other party was and the seriousness of the injury attributed to them. Understanding the difference between being only negligent and extremely negligent is important.

An example of negligence that might lead to punitive damages is knowingly being distracted (texting) or not following traffic norms (DUI), causing a driver to run a red light or STOP sign, and colliding with another car. All drivers have the responsibility to stop and watch for other vehicles. By failing to abide by this responsibility, the driver inflicted injury on another.

Not all circumstances warrant the awarding of punitive damages; this is where the difference between negligence and extreme negligence comes into consideration. A driver distracted by their toddler in the backseat, running a red light, and hitting another car is negligent but not intentionally negligent. However, there are laws against driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol, and many states have laws against texting while driving. The failure to abide by these laws is intentional and reckless. Any driver causing an accident while driving under the influence or texting could be seen as extremely negligent and warrant having to pay personal injury punitive damages.

Rental property owners and landlords can also be held responsible if they know that their property is unsafe and fail to make the necessary repairs. For example, a landlord knows that a property has a defective staircase and fails to make the appropriate repair. Anyone obtaining an injury on that staircase, who can claim the injury was due to the landlord’s failure to fix the problems, can claim punitive damages since the owner was intentionally negligent.

Personal injury cases can also happen because of product liability and medical malpractice issues.

How often are punitive damages awarded?

Courts apply punitive damages in about 5% of verdicts. Under Illinois law, a plaintiff may seek punitive damages in the following types of actions: (1) bodily injury, (2) physical damage to property, or (3) product liability based on strict tort liability (735 ILCS 5/2-604.1). Courts award punitive damages in about 30% of the cases seeking them.

How can you find a lawyer for punitive damages?

A highly-qualified personal injury attorney can handle your case if you or a loved one has experienced an injury or death due to negligence. They should have the skills to determine if your case warrants filing for personal injury punitive damages. Trent Law Firm is a Chicago personal injury law firm excelling in representing those who have experienced a personal injury due to another’s negligence. We have helped thousands of people in the area and continue to do so through our expertise in personal injury. We are your best option in Chicago when you need a personal injury law firm.

Do you need help?

Contact the offices of Trent Law Firm, P.C., today to discuss your case and how our experienced personal injury attorneys may be able to help. Call (866) 599-8601 for a confidential consultation.

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