Brain injuries can arise in a wide array of events, from car accidents and sport collisions to medical malpractice and more. When the injury is caused by the negligence of someone else, then a civil lawsuit may be filed to compensate the party for their losses. In the truly unique cases where the wrongdoer acts with reckless abandon or extreme negligence, then there is also a chance that the defendant will be hit with punitive damages. Instead of compensating the one hurt, these damages are meant to punish the person who acted so wrongly.
There remains much confusion about the purpose of these awards, their size, and frequency.
At the outset, it is important to understand that punitive damages are rare. They are not something that comes up in the vast majority of cases. Additionally, when they do arise, they do not automatically mean a penalty of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. Punitive damage awards are usually much smaller, and tied to the size of the compensatory damages themselves.
This week Justia published a handy article that discusses the purpose of these damage awards, walking through the major court cases that have defined their applications in all civil lawsuits–including those involving brain injury.
History of Punitive Damages
The U.S. Supreme Court has faced a myriad of cases related to these awards over the past few decades. Their decisions in those cases guide what attorneys propose in appropriate cases today. The short summary of those decisions show that punitive damages are allowed, but their scope must factor in reasonableness–awards of every size may not necessarily comport with constitutional guidelines.
Virtually all of the cases stem from defendants who were hit with large punitive damage awards by judges or juries and then challenged the constitutionality of the award. At first, those defendants argued that the awards violated 8th Amendment prohibitions on excessive fines. However, the court noted that the 8th Amendment does not apply to suits between private parties, and is not applicable when the state is not involved.
After that legal defeat, defendants moved to the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, arguing that it was violated with unreasonable punitive damage awards in civil lawsuits. On a few occasions, the Court has agreed. In perhaps the most high-profile case on the issue in 2003, State Farm v. Campbell, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a punitive damage award of $145 million. They reasoned that the award violated due process not because all damages based on punishment are wrong, but because the size of the award was excessive in light of the compensatory damages. In that case, only $1 million in compensatory damages were given. That equates to a 145 to 1 ratio between punitive and compensatory–a figure the court deemed to wide. Instead, they suggested that a 10 to 1 ration would likely be the maximum.
However, even that 10 to 1 rule has been questioned, and subsequent cases have actually allowed punitive damage awards of much larger. Therefore, it remains a tough legal questions to say with certainty whether any punitive damage award is appropriate. An attorney with proper experience can explain how it all might work in your case.
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