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When Are Punitive Damages Available in a Florida Personal Injury Lawsuit?

Whenever you read a news report about an especially large personal injury judgment–i.e., a figure in the tens of millions of dollars–that is often an indication that the case involved punitive damages. Most personal injury cases in Florida only result in an award of compensatory damages, that is compensation for the losses directly sustained by the plaintiff. Punitive damages, in contrast, are about punishing the defendant for their wrongdoing.

Not all Florida cases are eligible for punitive damages. Indeed, the Florida Supreme Court has said that punitive damages “are a form of extraordinary relief for acts and omissions so egregious as to jeopardize not only the particular plaintiff in the lawsuit, but the public as a whole, such that a punishment–not merely compensation–must be imposed to prevent similar conduct in the future.”

Intentional Misconduct vs. Gross Negligence

Because of their extraordinary nature, punitive damages can only be awarded in strict compliance with Florida law. Section 768.72 of the Florida Statutes governs punitive damages in personal injury cases. This section provides that punitive damages can only be awarded when the trier of fact–the jury or a judge if there is no jury–finds by “clear and convincing evidence” that the defendant was “personally guilty of intentional misconduct or gross negligence.”

There are a few things to unpack here. First, what does “clear and convincing evidence” mean? In personal injury cases, the plaintiff must normally prove the defendant’s negligence by a “preponderance of the evidence.” In simple terms, the evidence must show it was more likely than not that the defendant’s conduct caused the plaintiff’s injury. But “clear and convincing evidence” imposes a higher standard or proof. While it is difficult to qualify in precise terms, “clear and convincing evidence” is essentially an intermediate standard. It requires more than a “preponderance of the evidence” but less than “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is the legal standard required to establish criminal liability in Florida.

The next thing to consider is what the law means by “intentional misconduct” or “gross negligence.” Intentional misconduct is fairly self-explanatory. It means the defendant had “actual knowledge” they were engaging in some wrongful conduct that would likely injure someone, and yet despite that knowledge they chose to act anyway. Gross negligence refers to conduct that is considered so reckless or “wanting in care” that it amounts to a conscious disregard for the life, safety, and rights of other people.

To provide a hypothetical illustration, if a driver fails to pay attention to where they were going and inadvertently runs a red light and thus causes an accident, such conduct is negligent, but it does not rise to the level of either intentional misconduct or gross negligence. So while the victim of the accident can sue and recover compensatory damages, they would likely be barred from seeking punitive damages.

But say the driver who caused the accident was intoxicated. Drunk driving is considered gross negligence in Florida. So in that scenario, the plaintiff could ask for punitive damages.

Additional Rules Governing Punitive Damages in Florida

If a plaintiff wishes to seek punitive damages in a Florida personal injury case, they must first provide a “reasonable showing” to the court that there is a basis for such damages. In other words, a judge will not allow a plaintiff to even present a claim for punitive damages to the jury without first determining if there is evidence that the defendant engaged in either intentional misconduct or gross negligence.

In addition, if the defendant is an employer, corporation, or other legal entity sued for the conduct of their employee or agent, the plaintiff must also prove any of the following:

  • the employer or principal “actively and knowingly participated” in the employee or agent’s conduct;
  • the officers, directors, or managers of the employer or principal “knowingly condoned, ratified, or consented to” the employee or agent’s conduct; or
  • the employer or principal engaged in conduct that itself constituted “gross negligence” that harmed the plaintiff.

Finally, it is important to note that Florida law does cap the amount of damages that may be awarded in a personal injury case. The current limit is the greater of $500,000 or three times the amount of compensatory damages awarded to the plaintiff. So for example, if a plaintiff received $500,000 in compensatory damages, a judge or jury could not award more than $1.5 million in punitive damages.

Contact Our South Florida Personal Injury Lawyers Today

Punitive damages are just one of many issues that need to be carefully considered when preparing a personal injury case. A qualified personal injury attorney can review your case and advise you of your options. Contact Dolan Dobrinsky Rosenblum, LLP, at 305-371-2692 today to schedule a free initial consultation.