In a New Jersey personal injury case, there are two possible types of damages: compensatory and punitive damages.
Compensatory damages are designed to provide the plaintiff with the monetary amount necessary to replace what was lost in the incident. These losses can be quantifiable (i.e. economic) or more abstract (i.e. non-economic), so long as you can prove to the court that your injury and losses were tied directly to the defendant’s conduct.
Compensatory damages can include compensation for:
- Medical bills, including hospital stays, physical therapy, nursing home stays, rehabilitation, and the cost of a permanent caregiver if necessary.
- Lost wages, including compensation for time lost because of the injury (or resulting medical treatment), loss of vacation days or sick days used because of the injury, and decreased earning capacity in the future if the plaintiff remains unable to work.
- Pain and suffering
- Emotional distress
- Wrongful death
- Loss of companionship or loss of consortium
There is no limit on compensatory damages in New Jersey. As long as you can prove the amount of damages, a jury can award it.
Punitive damages are only awarded in select circumstances. These damages are reserved for cases in which the defendant’s behavior was particularly egregious, reprehensible, or showed intent to cause harm. Punitive damages are designed to punish the defendant for his or her conduct and deter the defendant from similar conduct in the future.
In order to award punitive damages, the court must determine that:
- The injury, loss, or harm suffered resulted from the defendant’s acts (or failure to act)
- Either the defendant’s conduct was malicious or the defendant acted in wanton and willful disregard of the plaintiff’s rights
In order for punitive damages to be awarded, either the defendant must have known their actions would result in injury or they must have committed an act (or failed to act) with knowledge that harm was likely to occur. For punitive damages, the bottom line is that the defendant must have acted with reckless indifference, malice, or the intent to cause harm.
For example, say the owner of a grocery store has a leaky roof. A building inspector comes by and tells the grocery store owner that a certain part of the store is not safe for shoppers due to the leaking roof. Instead of closing off part (or all) of the store, the owner ignores the inspector and keeps the store open. Part of the roof collapses, resulting in serious injuries to two shoppers. The store owner would certainly be open to a premises liability lawsuit for the injuries sustained in the collapse; however, he is now also on the hook for punitive damages because he was told about the unsafe condition, failed to do anything about it, and then people were injured as a result.
The state of New Jersey limits punitive damages to $350,000 or five times the amount of compensatory damages (whichever is a larger amount).
Many states also place a cap on medical malpractice damages, such as California, which has a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages in medical malpractice suits. However, the state of New Jersey has not yet instituted a cap on medical malpractice damages, meaning as long as a patient can prove damages—both economic and non-economic—they can be awarded.
However, a bill was introduced during the 2012-2013 New Jersey Assembly that would impose a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages (i.e. pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, anxiety, stress, etc.) in medical malpractice damages, so New Jersey could soon join the number of states with medical malpractice damage caps.