Throughout the United States — and in the state of Alabama — punitive damages awards occupy a special place in popular culture, though many people may be unaware of its importance. When civil lawsuits (non-criminal) capture the attention of the mainstream, it’s typically due to the existence of a sizable and perhaps disproportionate damage award.
For example, a trip-and-fall injury case is not particularly noteworthy if the damages are $100,000 in total, but it may be picked up by various media outlets and make the nightly news if the damages rocket up to $10 million.
What does this have to do with punitive damages?
Well, put simply, punitive damages act as a multiplier for the “actual damages” in the case. Suppose you have suffered a grand total of $500,000 in damages, including wage loss, medical expenses, and emotional damages, among other things. If the court awards punitive damages, then your total compensation may be multiplied by some factor — say, three times — thus leading to damage recovery worth millions of dollars!
If you have been injured due to another person’s reckless or intentional actions, then an Alabama court may award punitive damages. Punitive damages are only infrequently awarded, however. Given the inherent challenge in securing an award of punitive damages, it’s important to work with a qualified Tuscaloosa personal injury attorney who has experience successfully obtaining such damages on behalf of their clients.
Punitive damages (sometimes referred to as exemplary damages) may be a rather confusing and unfamiliar topic for some personal injury claimants, so let’s first explore some fundamental aspects of damages and how it all relates to compensation and punishment in the civil litigation context. No need to worry about “legalese” and complex concepts — it’s all rather simple to understand when you boil it down to its component parts!
Compensatory damages reflect the actual losses suffered by the injured plaintiff and are meant to help the plaintiff recover — in other words, they are meant to “compensate” the plaintiff for their various losses. A compensatory damages total that fully and adequately contemplates the losses suffered by the plaintiff will (to the degree possible) put the plaintiff in a position that is at least somewhat similar to where they would have been had the defendant not engaged in the wrongful conduct at-issue. Such compensation may include both economic damages (i.e., wage loss, medical expenses) and non-economic damages (i.e., pain and suffering, emotional distress).
It’s important to note that compensatory damages are the “default” in most personal injury lawsuits. As the plaintiff in a personal injury case, you are suing to recover damages as compensation for your various losses — put simply, an award of compensatory damages serves as the end-goal of litigation.
Punitive damages are quite different than compensatory damages, in that the intention of a punitive damages award is not to compensate the injured party but is instead to punish the injured party and protect others from the damaging conduct at-issue.
In Alabama, as is the case in other jurisdictions, punitive damages serve two fundamental purposes:
Punitive damages accomplish this task by operating as “supplementary” damages in addition to the existing compensatory damages, thus rocketing up the potential damages award significantly. Punitive damages essentially multiply the compensatory damages and are then added to that total. For example, if you have a compensatory damages claim equivalent to $250,000, and the court awards three times the compensatory damages in the form of punitive damages, then you would receive $750,000 in punitive damages for a $1 million total recovery.
As an award of punitive damages can be substantial, it forces defendants to stand up and take steps to prevent violations in the future — they can no longer shrug their shoulders and continue to engage in such conduct. This is particularly important in the commercial context, where the prospect of a lawsuit is often seen as a “cost of doing business.”
For example, suppose that there is a toy manufacturer that accepts that they will likely be sued and have to pay out (on average) roughly $1 million per year in damages, due to various lawsuits relating to their products. This cost may be low enough that the manufacturer is willing to absorb it and continue without improving their safety processes. Now, if the cost is increased to $5 million or $10 million, however, due to the prospect of punitive damages, then the manufacturer may not be willing to absorb that cost and will implement various safety protocols to minimize their potential liability.
Punitive damages are only awarded under very specific, limited circumstances. Pursuant to section 6-11-20 of the Alabama Code, punitive damages are only to be awarded when the plaintiff can prove that the defendant consciously or deliberately engaged in oppression, fraud, wantonness, or malice with regard to the plaintiff.
Perhaps stated more succinctly, a defendant may be subject to punitive damages liability if the court finds that they have intentionally misrepresented or concealed something that led to the plaintiff’s injuries (i.e., a manufacturer failing to disclose defective brakes on its motorcycle products), or if the court finds that they have acted in such a way that demonstrates a conscious disregard for the rights and safety of others.
In the prototypical case, drivers who race cars on busy public roads are clearly acting with reckless and conscious disregard for the safety of others. If an accident occurs, then the injured party can almost certainly argue that a punitive damages award is appropriate.
Have you suffered an injury due to the egregious, willful, or reckless actions of another? Get in touch with a Tuscaloosa personal injury attorney here at Cross & Smith, LLC for a free consultation. Call (205) 391-0618 to setup an appointment with one of our attorneys.
"I have been friends with Dell Cross since we were roommates at UA Law and have had the pleasure of conferring with Cross & Smith, LLC in a professional capacity for many years. As a law office which specializes in domestic relations and family law matters, it is imperative that my office maintain a consistent client referral relationship with a law firm which can effectively address personal injury matters brought to us by our clients."
Mark Sterling Gober