Punitive damages have been traditionally available to victims injured by acts of defendants that were worse than everyday negligence. In cases where the defendant did more than just make an everyday mistake.
There are two purposes of punitive damages. The first is to “send a message” to the defendant – to let him know society views his action as so serious, that he will have to pay extra damages so he won’t commit the same act again. The second is to let everybody else know, so none of them would try anything like it – in short, to make an example of the perpetrator.
In a punitive damages lawsuit, the plaintiff gets whatever amount is necessary to compensate him fully for his injury; but in addition, he also gets money that will punish the defendant for acting in such a terrible way. There are a number of terms that courts will use to describe “punitive damages” conduct – such as “willful and wanton misconduct” or “callous disregard for the rights of the defendant” or “gross negligence” or even intentional conduct.
Punitive damages, in the past, always had to be paid by the individual, and not his insurance. (This was a matter of “public policy” – everyone was afraid if you could buy insurance against your own intentional conduct, you might be more likely to engage in intentional conduct, and run around doing bad things on purpose. Or with “callous disregard”.)
An additional benefit of presenting a case for punitive damages, though – never really acknowledged in the law – was the possibility that the jury, after hearing all the evidence of the bad things done by the defendant, was more likely to award greater amounts for the victim’s pain and suffering. Because even if they found that the conduct was only negligent, and not intentional, there was still evidence in front of them which made them think they ought to do something about this situation.
As you can guess, insurance companies don’t like punitive damages – even though they usually don’t have to pay them. They see them as making verdicts bigger, whether the jury awards them or not. And sometimes, courts have ruled that the insurance company has to pay the punitive damages itself, or the attorney fees.
So the insurance companies changed things. They sponsored laws in the legislature that limited the amount of punitive damages that could be awarded.
The laws also provide that you can’t put on evidence of punitive damages until after the case has gone to trial, and the jury has made an award of compensatory damages. So there are two trials – one on actual damages, and the second trial on intentional or callous conduct and punitive damages. This slows thngs down, and makes thing not as scary for the insurance company.
There is good news, though. You can still get punitive damages. The insurance company still can get in trouble with the person it insures if it doesn’t make a fair offer to settle the case, and the case goes to trial and the victim gets a punitive damages award.
And as hard as you can try, it is tough to keep all evidence of callous, reckless, willful wanton or intentional conduct away from the jury – they tend to sense it. (you can be they will be asking themselves exactly why the defendant went left of center at 2 AM going 75 in a 55.)
So if I think the facts are right, or may be right, I almost always ask for punitive damages.
If you think you have a case where punitive damages are appropriate, I will be happy to talk with you. Other lawyers refer their clients to me. And if you decide you‘d rather hire someone else, that’s OK.
But you don’t have to rely just on what you are reading. You can call me, a Cincinnati Personal Injury Lawyer. My phone is 513-621-4775. There is no charge for talking to me.
Because all situations are different, and because there may be other facts pertaining to your case that I don’t know about, you should not rely on this answer for legal advice. I am not your attorney, and no lawyer client relationship has been formed. All discussions are limited to Ohio law unless otherwise indicated. And past performance cannot be used to predict future results.