The function of punitive damages is to punish the wrongdoer, as opposed to compensating the victim. The hope is that that a financial punitive damage award will deter the wrongdoer, and others, from committing the acts in the future.
In recent years, the Courts and juries have been more than willing to issue large punitive verdicts to punish wrongdoers, especially big corporations. Lawmakers, who tend to receive important financial contributions from these same big corporations, are constantly passing laws to limit punitive awards.
Intentional Torts and Malice
If an injured party is hurt because of an intentional tort (Assault for example), then punitive damages may be appropriate. In fact, if “malice” is an element of the intentional tort, then punitive damages will be at issue in the case.
Simple or gross negligence is not enough to justify an award of punitive damages. This is because punitive damages are to punish and deter a wrongdoer. If the wrongdoer simply acted negligently (think rear-ending someone else), they have not acted so terribly as to require a punitive award.
Who Decides the Amount of Punitive Damages in Florida
Punitive Damages in Florida is a matter for the Jury to decide. The burden is on the Plaintiff to establish entitlement to a punitive award by clear and convincing evidence, and the amount of the award by the greater weight of the evidence.
It is the Jury who is charged with the task of assessing an amount of an award that is an appropriate degree of punishment for the reckless and malicious conduct.
Evidence Considered By the Jury
The Plaintiff can utilize the discovery process to find out the financial situation of the defendant, including tax returns, financial statements, income, cash flow, expenses, anticipated income, bank accounts, ownership or property and value, and more. The attorneys can go back three to five years in the discovery process to see the financial situation of the wrongdoer, in order to discover the appropriate amount of punitive damages to ask the Jury.
Tort Reform and Limits on Punitive Damages
In 1999, Florida, through “tort reform”, capped the amount of punitive damages in the following ways:
- If the defendant had a specific intent to do harm to the Plaintiff, then no cap.
- if specific intent is not found, then the cap may not exceed the greater of 3X the amount of compensatory damages OR the sum of $500,000.00.
- If the jury finds the defendant acted wrongfully only for financial gain and the likelihood of injury was known by the defendant or the defendant’s managing agent, director, officer, or other person, then the amount of punitive damages may not exceed 4X the compensatory damages or $2,000,000.00, whichever is higher.
Intoxicated Defendant and Punitive Damages in Florida
These caps on punitive damages do not apply if the defendant was intoxicated at the time of the act for which punitive damages are sought. A defendant is intoxicated if he is under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance to the extent his normal faculties were impaired or he had a blood or breath alcohol level of .08% or higher.
Pleading and Practice
The plaintiff in Florida needs to first file his or her lawsuit seeking compensatory damages, and then, after gathering enough evidence to show a reasonable basis for the recovery of punitive damages, then proffer testimony and file a pleading seeking punitive damages.
In other words, punitive damages are usually requested later in the game. Once sufficient evidence is gathered and shown to the Court by proffer or otherwise, the plaintiff can then move to amend his complaint.
If the Plaintiff files a request for Punitive too early, the defense attorney will move to dismiss the complaint or move for a protective Order from the Court to limit unneeded financial discovery.
Punitive Damages Against the State of Florida or Other State Entities
Florida law prohibits actions for punitive damages against the State of Florida or its entities. However, if an individual employee of the State caused damages while acting in bad faith, punitive damages can be sought against them individually.
Punitive Damages and Corporations
A corporation can be held liable for the direct conduct of its managing agent or primary owner of the corporation, or a managing officer.
Vicarious Liability: An Employer Can be Liable For His Employee
A case for punitive damages may be had against a corporation when the employee’s actions rise to the level of”intentional misconduct” or “gross negligence”.
Gross negligence means the defendant’s conduct was so reckless that it constituted a conscious disregard or indifference to life, safety or the rights of person.
In Florida, the employer must have also actively and knowingly participated in the grossly negligent conduct, or condoned and ratified the conduct, or engaged in conduct that contributed to the loss, damages, or injury suffered by the claimant.