Punitive Damages

Punitive Damages

When someone is injured because of another person’s negligence or wrongful acts, the injured party may receive compensation for damages. Damages in a personal injury case are divided into three categories.

Economic damages compensate the victim for financial losses, such as medical bills and loss of income. Non-economic damages, or pain and suffering, damages compensate the victim for non-financial losses, such as physical pain, permanent impairment, and emotional distress. Both types of damages are compensatory damages because they “compensate” the injured victim for some type of loss or harm.

A third category of damages may be awarded in a small number of personal injury cases. These damages are not compensatory in nature. They are called punitive damages

What are Punitive Damages?

Punitive damages, also called exemplary damages, do not compensate the victim for losses or damages. A punitive damages award is intended to punish the defendant for specific conduct. The defendant’s behavior must be willful and reckless or intentional and with malice. 

An award of punitive damages is intended to deter the defendant from engaging in similar conduct in the future. The award is also meant to provide a warning to others about engaging in the same conduct.

Punitive damages laws vary by state. In most cases, state law restricts when these types of damages may be awarded and caps the amount that must be paid. State law also defines what type of behavior justifies an award of punitive damages. 

Oklahoma Law Regarding Punitive Damages

Title 23 §9.1 of the Oklahoma Statutes provides when punitive damages may be awarded and the amount of punitive damages that may be awarded. 

In actions other than a breach of contract, a jury may order punitive damages as punishment for the defendant and for the sake of example. Factors for the jury to consider when contemplating an award of punitive damages are:

  • How serious was the hazard to the public from the defendant’s misconduct?
  • Was the defendant’s misconduct profitable for the defendant?
  • How long did the defendant’s conduct continue, and did the defendant conceal the conduct?
  • What was the defendant’s degree of awareness of the hazard and its excessiveness?
  • What were the conduct and attitude of the defendant when the misconduct or hazard was discovered?
  • What is the financial condition of the defendant?
  • If the defendant was a corporation, how many people were involved in causing or hiding the misconduct?

If the jury finds that punitive damages should be awarded, the statute caps the amount of punitive damages based on specific facts.

For example, if the jury finds by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant acted with reckless disregard for the rights of others, it may award punitive damages. It may also award punitive damages when an insurance company recklessly ignored its duty to act in good faith regarding an insured. The amount of punitive damages cannot exceed the greater of $100,000 or the amount of actual damages awarded in the case.

However, the cap for punitive damages is different if the defendant or an insurer acted maliciously and intentionally. In that case, the amount of punitive damages cannot be greater than $500,000, two times the amount of actual damages, or increased financial benefit received by the defendant or insurer as a direct result of their conduct. Actual damages refer to financial losses, including loss of income and medical expenses. 

In cases where the defendant or insurer acted intentionally and with malice in conduct that was life-threatening to others, the jury may award any amount of punitive damages without regard to the above caps. 

What Types of Cases Can a Victim Receive Punitive Damages?

Punitive damages may be available in any type of personal injury case. Examples of cases in which a plaintiff may receive punitive damages includes:

  • Automobile accidents
  • Medical malpractice cases
  • Accidents involving defective products
  • Premises liability claims
  • Nursing home abuse cases

An experienced attorney will be familiar with the factors that the jury must consider when deciding to award punitive damages. If the facts of the case substantiate the claim, the attorney can aggressively argue those facts to help the jurors understand the need for punitive damages. 

If you’ve been injured in one of the events above, you should contact a skilled Oklahoma personal injury attorney to determine if you may be entitled to damages, including punitive damages.