In personal injury actions, an injured party or estate can sometimes seek punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages for medical care and lost wages. Punitive damages are intended to penalize a negligent actor for intentional misconduct and gross negligence. An injured party must show with clear and convincing evidence that the negligent person or entity knew that her or his behavior was wrong and had a high probability of resulting in an injury, or the party’s behavior was so reckless or wanton that it equaled a conscious disregard or indifference to life. The state of Florida limits the amount of punitive damages that may be awarded to an injured party. Typically, the damages awarded cannot exceed either the greater of three times the amount of compensatory damages or $500,000. If the behavior is considered egregious or unreasonably dangerous, the cap may be increased to either four times the amount of compensatory damages or $2 million.
A recent Court of Appeal lawsuit (Case No. 5D16-863) analyzes a punitive damages award in a rear-end car accident case that resulted in serious injuries and death to the driver and passenger of the front car. The defendant was convicted of two charges of DUI manslaughter and sentenced to two life sentences. The injured driver and administrator of the deceased passenger’s estate filed suit against the drunk driver, originally alleging wrongful death and negligence. Eventually, the complaint was amended to include a claim for punitive damages, based on the drunk driver’s .302 percent blood alcohol level.
The trial was separated into two parts – one to determine the negligence and the compensatory damages and another for the punitive damages. The deceased victim’s estate was awarded $244,419 in damages, and the seriously injured driver received $75,144.35. At the beginning of the punitive damages portion of the trial, both parties submitted proposed jury instructions that differed significantly on the inclusion or exclusion of the defendant’s financial assets. The injured parties objected to the defendant’s desire to tell the jury of his limited resources. The plaintiffs believed that he would benefit by arguing he was in jail and unable to pay. The judge allowed jury instructions that advised they may consider the defendant’s financial resources but omitted the defendant’s proposed phrase admonishing that the jury “may not award an amount that would financially destroy the defendant.”