Can I Seek Punitive Damages Following a Car Accident?

If you are injured in a car accident due to another driver’s negligence, you have the right to seek damages to compensate you for your losses. In certain cases, you may also be entitled to seek punitive damages. Unlike compensatory damages, which are designed to make the injured victim whole, punitive damages are intended to punish and deter individual defendants whose conduct is particularly offensive or reckless. For example, if you are injured by a driver who is under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the accident, such conduct may justify an award of punitive damages.

Florida Court Rejects Jury’s Award of 100 Percent of Defendant’s Net Worth

But there are limits on how far punitive damages can go, as a recent decision by a Lakeland, Florida appeals court illustrates. The victim in this case was in a car accident with the defendant. The defendant admitted he had fallen asleep at the wheel and was therefore liable for causing the accident. Additional evidence presented by the victim established the defendant, a physician, had also taken sleeping pills just before getting behind the wheel for a three-hour drive.

Based on this information, the trial court allowed the victim to seek punitive damages. Before the jury, the defendant testified that he had a net worth of approximately $284,000. The jury decided to award exactly that amount in punitive damages.

The defendant (and his insurance company) appealed, arguing the punitive damage award was excessive and therefore violated the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment. The Florida Second District Court of Appeal—which has jurisdiction over Tampa, Pinellas County, and Clearwater, among other areas—heard the appeal. In a May 4 decision, the Second District agreed the award was unconstitutional and returned the case to the trial court for further proceedings.

The Second District acknowledged that “drawing the line between constitutionally permissible and unconstitutionally excessive can be difficult in the context of punitive damages awards.” That said, Florida courts have established that punitive damages exceeding a defendant’s net worth are clearly unconstitutional. Likewise, the Fourth District Court of Appeal has said a punitive damages award of 40 percent of a defendant’s net worth is unconstitutional. Given that 40 percent is unconstitutional, the Second District reasoned, then an award of 100 percent of the defendant’s net worth, as was the case here, is “likewise excessive.”

The Second District did not, however, decide just how far to reduce the award. It returned the case to the trial judge to make that determination. If the victim disagrees with the trial judge’s proposed reduction, he is free to seek a new jury trial “on the sole issue of the amount of punitive damages.”

Get Help From a Florida Car Accident Attorney

Even a simple car accident can lead to complex legal problems. That is why you should seek assistance from an experienced Clearwater personal injury lawyer who understands Florida law and can fight to ensure you receive compensation for your injuries. Contact the Law Office of Paul B. Genet, P.A., at (727) 538-8865, if you need to speak with an attorney right away.

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