As the name suggests, punitive damages are meant to punish a defendant or to act as a deterrent.
But not every plaintiff in a civil case (such as a personal injury claim) can ask for punitive damages. In fact, the requirements for eligibility are fairly strict.
Wondering what is the Florida punitive damages statute? Florida Statute Section 768.72 allows punitive damages only when “there is a reasonable showing by evidence in the record or proffered by the claimant which would provide a reasonable basis for recovery of such damages.”
Understanding when a court can award punitive damages is important for anyone who may be involved in a lawsuit. In this guide, here’s how punitive damages in Florida work and who may be eligible for them.
Damage Categories in Florida Civil Cases
When someone suffers injuries or other losses due to the negligent or wrongful act of another, they are entitled to seek compensation. In Florida, there are three basic categories that a plaintiff may receive in a lawsuit or settlement.
Economic damages are used to financially compensate a plaintiff for the direct losses the plaintiff suffered due to the accident/incident. These include past and future medical expenses, lost wages, property damage, and more.
Non-economic damages compensate the plaintiff for less concrete losses like physical pain and suffering, emotional and psychological damage, loss of quality of life, and more.
Unlike the first two types of damages, which are compensatory, punitive damages are put into place to punish the individual or entity responsible for the incident. They are available only in the most egregious circumstances.
Florida Punitive Damages Statute
As mentioned above, Florida Statute Section 768.72 dictates when punitive damages are available in a lawsuit: “A defendant may be held liable for punitive damages only if the trier of fact, based on clear and convincing evidence, finds that the defendant was personally guilty of intentional misconduct or gross negligence.”
The language of the law indicates that this is a pretty high bar to clear. Only a trier of fact (the jury) is allowed to award punitive damages and only under exceptional circumstances.
The onus is on the plaintiff not just to ask for these damages but also to prove them. The “clear and convincing” standard is higher than the normal personal injury-proof standard, which means that the plaintiff needs strong evidence to back their damages claim.
The fact of the matter is that punitive damages aren’t awarded very often. Generally, punitive damages claims are not meant for a plaintiff to recover extra damages for themselves. Instead, they are intended to punish a defendant for a particularly heinous act or to provide a warning to future defendants to avoid similar conduct.
Intentional Misconduct v. Gross Negligence
Under the Florida punitive damages statute, there are two situations where punitive damages are appropriate. These are when the defendant’s actions are grossly negligent or the defendant commits intentional misconduct. Both are expressly defined by Florida law:
- Gross negligence exists when the defendant’s conduct was so reckless or wanting in care that it constituted a conscious disregard or indifference to the life, safety, or rights of persons exposed to such conduct (Florida Statutes 768.72 (2)(b)); and
- Intentional misconduct exists when the defendant had actual knowledge of the wrongfulness of the conduct and the high probability that injury or damage to the claimant would result and, despite that knowledge, intentionally pursued that course of conduct, resulting in injury or damage (Florida Statutes 768.72 (2)(a)).
Only if the defendant or possible at-fault party committed acts that fit either of these will the court consider awarding punitive damages in addition to the other categories.
Treble Damages in Florida
Treble damages in Florida refer to a legal concept where a court awards three times the amount of actual damages to the plaintiff in certain cases. This type of compensation aims to deter wrongful conduct and provide a more substantial financial penalty for the defendant. Treble damages can be applicable in cases involving fraud, antitrust violations, and other intentional wrongdoing. It’s important to note that treble damages are distinct from punitive damages, as they focus on compensating the plaintiff for their losses rather than solely punishing the defendant.
The Process of Asking for Punitive Damages
There is a specific way that a personal injury attorney must seek punitive damages in Florida in a trial setting. First, there is a hearing before the judge. This determines if there is sufficient evidence to allow the plaintiff to present a claim for punitive damages to the jury.
If the judge approves, the plaintiff must then present enough clear and convincing evidence to the jury that punitive damages are appropriate in your case.
An attorney may not just randomly ask for punitive damages at the end of a trial, nor can a jury tack these onto a damages award once it has reached a verdict. If the process is not followed, a jury cannot award any punitive damages.
Limits on Punitive Damages
Under the Florida punitive damages statute, it’s possible to receive an award that equals the greater of three times the compensatory damages or the amount of $500,000.00. Most states place limits on the amount that a plaintiff can receive in compensation for a personal injury claim. Most states do not place limits on economic damages, as long as the losses are supported with evidence. Some states limit non-economic damages, but Florida does not.
The only category that Florida limits (or caps) is punitive damages. A plaintiff can only receive up to three times the amount they receive for compensatory damages (economic and non-economic damages combined). Anything above is capped by law.
Contact Us for Guidance on Punitive Damages in Florida
If you are seriously injured due to someone else’s negligent or wrongful actions, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed. You may be unable to work and struggle both physically and emotionally to recover from your losses. At Abrahamson & Uiterwyk, we are here to help. If you have questions or need assistance understanding the Florida punitive damages statute, feel free to contact our team for guidance.
Based in Tampa, our personal injury attorneys also handle cases in St. Petersburg, Clearwater, and throughout the state of Florida. For over 30 years we have fought for the well-being of our clients and are proud of our case results. We have received an A+ rating from the BBB, an “AV” rating from Martindale-Hubbell, and a “Best Law Firm” rating from US News & World Report.
When it comes to serious injuries, the nearby team at Abrahamson & Uiterwyk provides excellent advocacy as well as personal service. For a free consultation, call us at 813-223-5295 or contact us on our website to schedule an appointment.