What Are Punitive Damages?
Punitive damages in New Jersey are rare. However, that doesn’t stop plaintiffs from wondering what they are and if they can pursue them in a personal injury lawsuit. Unfortunately, the answer is typically no, but let us explain.
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What Are Punitive Damages & Why Are They Awarded?
According to New Jersey Statutes § 2A:15-5.10, punitive damages—also known as exemplary damages—are “damages awarded against a party in a civil action because of aggravating circumstances in order to penalize and to provide additional deterrence against a defendant to discourage similar conduct in the future.”
Simply, punitive damages are a punishment for particularly egregious defendants. Having to pay the additional damages is intended to dissuade them from similar behavior in the future and discourage other parties from engaging in the same or similar conduct.
Compensatory damages are awarded to compensate a plaintiff for the actual losses they have suffered (e.g., medical bills, lost wages, future expenses, etc.). Punitive damages are only awarded in addition to actual damages. Where compensatory damages give justice, the purpose of punitive damages is to punish the defendant.
Punitive damages awards are not intended as a benefit for the plaintiff, though the plaintiff does benefit. They are meant to make an example of the defendant and their malicious, intentional actions.
When Are Punitive Damages Awarded?
The awarding of punitive damages is very rare. In fact, Cornell Law School estimates that “Courts apply punitive damages in about 5% of verdicts.”
Punitive damages are even rarer in New Jersey personal injury cases. New Jersey does not apply punitive damages in personal injury cases for which “the burden of proof” is “any degree of negligence including gross negligence” (§ 2A:15-5.12). Negligence claims make up the vast majority of personal injury cases.
The court must consider several factors when deciding whether to award punitive damages, per § 2A:15-5.12(b). These include, but are not limited to:
“(1) The likelihood, at the relevant time, that serious harm would arise from the defendant’s conduct;
“(2) The defendant’s awareness of reckless disregard of the likelihood that the serious harm at issue would arise from the defendant’s conduct;
“(3) The conduct of the defendant upon learning that its initial conduct would likely cause harm; and
“(4) The duration of the conduct or any concealment of it by the defendant.”
In essence, did the defendant know that their actions could cause serious harm? Did they show a clear disregard for the fact that their actions could result in serious harm to another person? What did they do when they discovered that their actions could cause harm? How long did they continue the harmful behavior after discovering it was causing harm? And finally, did they try to cover it up?
The answers to these questions can help determine whether the defendant was acting out of malice and a wanton and willful disregard for the party or parties affected by their actions.
How Much Are Punitive Damages in New Jersey?
Whether or not punitive damages are added to a plaintiff’s award and their amount is at the court’s discretion. However, states often have their own limits or caps on exemplary damages.
In New Jersey, punitive damages are limited to five times the amount of compensatory damages or $350,000, whichever is greater. Additionally, the court must take into account:
- The facts set forth in the case
- How profitable the defendant’s actions were for them
- How long the harmful behavior went on
- The defendant’s financial state
- The amount of punitive damages awarded in similar cases
In New Jersey, any punitive damages award that exceeds your actual damages will be taxed.
Can I Ask for Punitive Damages in My Personal Injury Case?
To be awarded punitive damages in New Jersey, you must be able to prove intentional, malicious action(s) on the part of the defendant. Most personal injury cases are based on negligence, and negligence isn’t considered intentional or malicious.
However, civil cases involving drunk drivers or those texting while driving might warrant the application of punitive damages. In these cases, the drivers know that their behaviors are dangerous, yet they still engaged in them. As a result, injury victims can argue that these drivers intentionally jeopardized their well-being.
Please remember punitive damages are very rarely awarded. Even though you may have a case in which it would be appropriate to ask for punitive damages, it would still be at the court’s discretion and need to meet their criteria.
If you’ve been injured in an accident caused by egregious conduct and you think you may be entitled to punitive damages, an experienced personal injury attorney can help you determine whether your case merits an award in addition to the compensatory damages you may recover for your injury. Contact the skilled and experienced lawyers at Maggiano, DiGirolamo & Lizzi today for a FREE consultation.