A wrongful death lawsuit seeks compensation for the loss of a loved one. There are many damages available for losses, such as lost income or benefits, along with the cost of treating your loved one’s injuries or illness.
Punitive damages are not compensatory in nature. Instead, they are designed to punish the defendant for horrific actions, such as intentionally killing someone or acting without regard for other people’s safety. Florida places some limits on punitive damages, as illustrated by an interesting lawsuit winding its way through the court system.
Are Punitive Damages Excessive?
Because punitive damages are meant to punish a defendant and deter future wrongdoing, you might assume that no amount can be excessive. After all, a jury uses its own judgment to determine what is an appropriate punishment.
However, a case involving a woman who died of lung cancer at 52 shows that our state’s courts will limit the amount of punitive damages. In this case, a jury award a woman’s estate $16 million when it sued R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. The deceased was a smoker, and her survivors argued that the company’s actions made smoking more addictive even when they knew it was dangerous.
At trial, the jury awarded the estate $300,000 in compensatory damages for things like lost income. They tacked on an additional $16 million in punitive damages to punish the tobacco giant. However, the 5th District Court of Appeal reduced the compensatory damages to $150,000 to account for the deceased being partially at fault.
They also sent the case back to the trial court to reconsider the $16 million awarded in punitive damages. Although $16 million might be appropriate in some cases, what mattered was its relation to the amount of compensatory damages.
Florida’s current law on punitive damages, section 768.73, states that punitive damages should not exceed three times a victim’s compensatory damages or $500,000, whichever is larger. If an estate secures $150,000 in compensatory damages, then the maximum should be $500,000.
The statute has exceptions, however. If the defendant was motivated by financial gain and knew that injury was highly likely to result, then punitive damages can equal four times the compensatory damages or $2 million, whichever is greater. And when defendants have a specific intent to harm, there is no cap on punitives.
Has a Loved One Died?
At Dolan Dobrinsky Rosenblum Bluestein, LLP we always consider whether punitive damages are appropriate in a wrongful death action. If we believe the facts warrants seeking them, then we will build an appropriate case. To learn more, schedule a free consultation with our law firm by calling 305-371-2692.