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Winning Punitive Damages

In most cases of negligence, you win damages to compensate you for the harm you have suffered: medical expenses, lost wages, emotional distress and son on. But in cases where the defendant’s conduct was particularly outrageous, you can also win punitive damages that are designed to punish the wrongdoer and set an example for others.


Regardless of the alternative rationales over the years, the consensus today is that punitive damages are aimed not at compensation but principally at retribution and deterring harmful conduct. This consensus informs the doctrine in most modern American jurisdictions, where juries are customarily instructed on twin goals of punitive awards. The purpose of punitive damages is not to compensate the plaintiff but to punish the defendant, and thereby to discourage the defendant from acting in a similar way in the future.


Outrageous Conduct


The prevailing rule in American courts also limits punitive damages to cases where a defendant’s conduct is ”outrageous,” owing to “gross negligence,” “willful, wanton, and reckless indifference for the rights of others,” or behavior even more deplorable.


Under the umbrellas of punishment and its aim of deterrence, degrees of relative blameworthiness are apparent. Reckless conduct is not intentional or malicious, nor is it necessarily callous toward the risk of harming others, as opposed to unmindful of it. Action taken or omitted in order to augment profit represents an enhanced degree of punishable culpability, as of course does willful or malicious action, taken with a purpose to injure.


Hard to Detect


Regardless of culpability, however, heavier punitive awards have been thought to be justifiable when wrongdoing is hard to detect, increasing chances of getting away with it, or when the value of injury and the corresponding compensatory award are small. Some regulations provide by statute for multiple recovery in order to induce private litigation to supplement official enforcement that might fall short if unaided.


In most American jurisdictions the amount of the punitive award is generally determined by a jury in the first instance, and that “determination is then reviewed by trial and appellate courts to ensure that it is reasonable.” Many states have gone further by imposing statutory limits on punitive awards, in the form of absolute monetary caps (greater of 3:1 ratio or $500,000 in most actions). Despite these limitations, punitive damages overall are higher and more frequent in the United States than they are anywhere else.


Make an Example of Them


So if you have been harmed by someone else’s reckless conduct in Houston, but the actual monetary harm you have suffered is small, you can still recover substantial damages under the punitive damages rule. And by bringing suit, you could be doing something good for the whole community, by showing this defendant that they cannot get away with trampling the rights of others. Contact a Houston personal injury attorney today.

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