Some personal injury claims are based on such extreme and egregious behavior by the wrongdoer that they warrant a significant award of damages. Can punitive damages be found in a personal injury case in Texas?
What Types of Damages are Likely in Texas Personal Injury Cases?
There are several types of damages. Most cases involve economic damages, also known as compensatory damages: these are the out-of-pocket costs incurred by the victim as a result of their injury. For example, in the case of a car accident, you might incur medical bills, mechanic’s bills, and even loss of income as a result of not being able to work due to your injuries. Those costs can be added up by the jury, which can reimburse you for them.
In many cases there are also non-economic — or general — damages. They include pain and suffering, loss of future wages, and the loss of enjoyment of everyday activities, among other categories. These are not easily calculated — unlike compensatory damages, which can be added up based on what the victim has incurred, general damages are not easy to quantify. Generally, it will be the jury’s job to put a dollar figure on general damages, based on many different factors.
In some cases, punitive damages might also be appropriate. Also known as exemplary damages, the purpose of punitive damages is to punish the wrongdoer for a particularly egregious wrongful act. They also work to deter the wrongdoer from engaging in that conduct again. Although their purpose is not to make the plaintiff whole again, as with compensatory damages, they are generally paid out to the plaintiff as part of their overall recovery.
How Can Punitive Damages be Recovered in Texas Personal Injury Cases?
Texas has a civil law in place regarding punitive damages in personal injury cases, which details the circumstances under which punitive damages might be available. Generally, this occurs only if the claimant proves by clear and convincing evidence that the harm results from fraud, malice, or gross negligence.
In a personal injury case, gross negligence typically means an act that involves an extreme level of risk. It occurs when the wrongdoer is aware of that extreme risk, yet disregards it, proceeding with conscious indifference to the safety, lives, or rights of others. A car accident where a driver is ordinarily negligent – running a red light, for instance – likely won’t rise to the level of gross negligence. If the driver is engaging in extreme risk, however – such as by drag racing or driving while intoxicated – that may be enough to establish gross negligence and award exemplary damages.
Personal injury punitive damages are typically awarded by a jury, which considers the following factors when weighing whether to award them:
- The nature of the wrong
- The character of the conduct involved
- The degree of culpability of the wrongdoer
- The situation and sensibilities of the parties concerned
- The extent to which such conduct offends a public sense of justice and propriety
In the case of a car accident, for example, all of those factors may be considered by the jury when weighing whether punitive damages should be awarded. The wrongdoing of the party at fault – for instance, failing to observe the rules of the road, or driving recklessly – will play a part in the jury’s determination. The degree of liability – for instance, to what extent each party is responsible for the accident – will also be considered. For a Texas jury to award punitive damages, it must be unanimous in its decision.
What Determines the Amount of Punitive Damages Awarded?
The maximum amount of punitive damages that can be recovered in Texas is $200,000; or, an amount equal to two times the amount of economic plus an amount equal to any non-economic damages, not to exceed $750,000 — whichever of the two figures is greater. There are some exceptions to this cap, namely dealing with a defendant committing certain felony crimes.
Based on that formula, punitive damages can be greatly impacted by the total amount of your actual damages. The victim must be able to prove actual damages for the recovery of any punitive damages.
How can the Francis Firm help?
If you have questions about the damages you may be able to recover in your personal injury claim, the Francis Firm will discuss your rights and options with you in detail. Michael Francis is a board-certified personal injury trial attorney. He and his firm are the experienced Texas counsel who can help you get the medical care you need and the maximum possible compensation for your injuries. The Francis Firm specializes in personal injury cases, especially those involving trucking and auto accidents, and has recovered millions of dollars for our clients. Contact the Francis Firm today to schedule your consultation.