In a personal injury juries assess several kinds of damages. Most of these are compensatory damages: meant to pay expenses incurred as a result of the accident or injury.
These expenses could include your medical bills, or your lost wages.
Punitive damages are damages awarded above and beyond your expenses.
Juries award punitive damages to punish the defendant for his or her actions in the personal injury case. They are covered by TN Code § 29-39-104.
For example, in a recent case, Wortham v. Kroger, Ms. Zula Wortham only sought $500,000 in medical compensation. The jury awarded her over 2 million. Some of these damages were punitive.
Ms. Wortham sustained the injury when a wheel popped off her shopping cart.
There is no longer a cap on punitive damages.
From 2014 to 2018 there was a cap on punitive damages. In December of 2014 the 6th Circuit Court struck down the cap as a violation of the Tennessee Constitution. The challenge arose in an appeal raised during Lindenberg v. Jackson National Life Insurance Company.
The court ruled the cap violated each citizen’s right to a jury trial.
This places decisions about punitive damages solely in the hands of the jury. Juries rarely receive much guidance on what might be considered fair and reasonable, and some argue they don’t have the legal training or objectivity to really make a fair assessment of whether a defendant acted in an immoral or reckless fashion.
Juries don’t award punitive damages in every case.
To receive punitive damages, the plaintiff must show the injury was either intentional, malicious, or the result of fraud and/or recklessness. Simple negligence, which is the basis for all personal injury cases, isn’t enough.
The jury believed Kroger was reckless. They believed the retail giant knew they were taking a risk when they failed to invest money into newer shopping carts, or shopping cart repairs, that might have kept the injury from occurring.
Punitive damages help demonstrate why you need a personal injury lawyer on your side.
If a plaintiff settles with a defendant without an attorney’s help (which defendants very much want plaintiffs to do) the plaintiff will never know if there was even a chance of receiving punitive damages. In most cases, the plaintiff will find whatever they offer doesn’t do a good job of covering expenses, either. But accepting the money will close down any opportunity to take the defendant to court later.
You should never accept any settlement without an expert on your side to assess whether the settlement is remotely fair. And that assessment includes thinking about whether a case could be made for punitive damages.
Defendants should give equal consideration to the possibility that a jury might award punitive damages before drawing up a settlement offer. This is especially true if you are aware the plaintiff has already retained a savvy attorney who will see a lowball offer and instantly advise his or her client to hold out for more.
Meanwhile, if your lawyer advises you punitive damages could be on the table you might consider offering some in your settlement. You might even use the former cap as your guideline for how much to offer, knowing it will be a fraction of what a jury is likely to award, mitigating risks you might be asked to pay far, far more.
We’re experienced attorneys who are willing to defend the rights of plaintiffs and defendants alike. You deserve outstanding representation no matter which side of a personal injury case you stand on.
Call us today to discuss your case and to find out how we might be able to help you.