Punitive Damages

Punitive damages are a form of damages that are separate and distinct from ordinary damages (economic damages plus non-economic damages). They are not intended to compensate the victim but to punish the defendant. Nevertheless, a court might award them to the victim in addition to economic and non-economic damages. 

Elements of a Punitive Damages Claim

The legal elements of a Texas punitive damages claim are:

  • The defendant is liable to the injury victim for personal injury compensation; and
  • The defendant injured the victim through fraud, malice, or gross negligence.

The victim must prove the defendant’s liability for punitive damages by the standard of “clear and convincing evidence.” 

What Is Gross Negligence?

Gross negligence is an extreme form of negligence. A defendant acts with gross negligence if they consciously violate another person’s right to safety. In other words, gross negligence is something more than just carelessness.

What Is Malice?

Malice is an unlawful intention, such as the intent to cause harm to the victim. Intentionally running a motorcyclist off the road in a “road rage” incident would probably constitute malice, for example.

What Is Fraud?

In a punitive damages claim, fraud involves deceit which causes injury to the victim. Fraud includes intentionally concealing an important fact, even without an overt false statement.

What Is “Clear and Convincing Evidence”?

Clear and convincing evidence is an intermediate standard of proof. An example of a more lenient standard of proof is a “preponderance of the evidence,” which means enough evidence to at least slightly outweigh any contrary evidence. An example of a stricter standard of proof is the “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt” in a criminal prosecution.

“Clear and convincing evidence” falls somewhere between these two extremes. Such evidence should produce a firm belief in the truth of the fact being asserted. 

Factors the Jury Must Consider

Texas law requires the jury to consider the following factors when determining the availability of punitive damages:

  • The nature of the defendant’s misconduct;
  • The character of the defendant’s misconduct;
  • The defendant’s degree of culpability;
  • The circumstances of the incident;
  • The extent to which the defendant’s conduct offends public decency; and
  • The defendant’s net worth.

The jury can also consider other factors.

Jury Unanimity Is Required

The jury must unanimously agree on the appropriateness of punitive damages. A single dissenting juror will defeat the victim’s claim for punitive damages.

The Futility of Settlement

Theoretically, it is possible to negotiate punitive damages with a defendant. In actual practice, however, it is rare for a defendant to agree to pay punitive damages. Instead, you must take the matter to court and force the defendant to pay.

Limitations on Punitive Damages 

Texas applies a complex upper limit on the amount of punitive damages a court will allow. Texas limits punitive damages to [twice the amount of economic damages] + [an amount equal to non-economic damages (up to $750,000)], or $200,000, whichever is greater. 

These limitations on punitive damages are virtually irrelevant to small claims because the victim is unlikely to seek punitive damages that exceed the maximum anyway.

The Rarity of Punitive Damages

You can win both economic damages and non-economic damages and still lose your claim to punitive damages. In fact, this is what happens most of the time when victims seek punitive damages because Texas courts are generally reluctant to them.

A drunk driving accident or a wrongful death claim arising from a “road rage” incident are two circumstances that would likely justify punitive damages. Even then, however, there are no guarantees. 

Contact an Experienced Dallas Personal Injury Lawyer If You Plan to Seek Punitive Damages

Punitive damages are tough to win, even with a strong claim. They are almost impossible to win if you represent yourself. Contact an experienced Dallas personal injury attorney at Jay Murray Personal Injury Lawyers to represent you in any claim for punitive damages by calling us at (214) 855-1420.