When Are Punitive Damages Available in Personal Injury Lawsuits?
Many personal injury claims end with a straightforward settlement that covers hospital bills, ongoing care expenses, career restoration, and similar tangible damages. However, if a defendant is found to have acted in an exceptionally negligent or dangerous way, the court may assign punitive damages.
How Do Punitive Damages Work in Massachusetts?
Punitive damages serve as additional punishment to economic and non-economic damages as a means of setting an example to dissuade future problems. They are reserved for especially negligent or irresponsible actions. For example, companies that deliberately put a dangerous product on the market or a repeat-offender drunk driver who is convicted of manslaughter will likely face these extra charges. Depending on the circumstances, both civil and criminal cases may involve punitive damages.
The Difference Between Civil and Criminal Cases
In Massachusetts, a crime may be prosecuted as either criminal or civil or both. A few important differences affect these cases and the damages a court may award. For example, criminal charges are for crimes that affect the state or society as a whole. Theft and white-collar offenses, such as embezzlement, are obvious criminal offenses. Manslaughter and drunk driving, though they typically involve one individual harming another, are criminal offenses; they put society as a whole at risk. Other factors that define criminal law include:
- Punishment is based on the severity and frequency of offenses as well as factors like the defendant’s age and his or her assumed responsibility.
- Punitive actions come with the threat of jail time.
- These cases most often go before a judge and a jury.
Civil cases, however, typically settle for monetary punishments or court orders. The penalties are less severe, and the burden of proof is far less intense than in criminal cases. These cases may go before a judge but often settle out of court.
Again, a crime may be civil and criminal, such as, a combination of murder and wrongful death charges. These cases are particularly involved, as criminal cases require proof beyond reasonable doubt, whereas the laws governing civil accusations are far less strict.
Punitive damages will likely be assessed in cases involving extreme neglect or deliberate harm. There are some limitations, though, in Massachusetts:
- They are only available if granted by a statute. It is important to consult an attorney and explain every detail of your case; a qualified legal counselor will know whether punitive damages are possible in your case.
- To qualify for punitive damages, the act in question must have been committed from an “evil motive” or reckless indifference to others’ rights (for example, a company that deliberately violates anti-discrimination laws when hiring or a physician who does not provide an accepted standard of care).
- In Massachusetts, there is precedence for awarding punitive damages only alongside compensatory damages. For instance, there must be documented harm or injuries related to the incident, whether those are physical, emotional, or financial; mere liability or apparent irresponsibility isn’t enough.
If your case involves the possibility of punitive damages, a qualified attorney will let you know so you can maximize your claim. A myriad decisions and factors affect the outcome of your case, and if another person or an organization intentionally or grossly harmed you, the responsible party should be held accountable. These laws exist to deter crimes, but you need to file a claim with a qualified legal team at your side.
As can be seen, punitive damages in personal injury cases represent a gray area of the law because of their circumstantial nature. Be sure to speak with your counsel to see if these factors play into your personal injury claim in Massachusetts.