Reprehensible Conduct and Punitive Damages

Gavel on Books

In previous blog posts I addressed the issue of punitive damages in Florida personal injury cases. As discussed previously, punishment and deterrence are the underlying policies when seeking punitive damages and the court must first address a plaintiff’s entitlement before evidence may be submitted to the court.

If an entitlement is found than a plaintiff may move forward with additional evidence in order to provide the trier of fact the ability to assess the appropriate amount of damages. In most cases it is very difficult to establish a punitive claim and without the punitive claim the jury is limited to only weigh whether the defendant’s misconduct harmed the plaintiff and the appropriate measure of damages for that harm. Almost never would a jury be permitted to receive evidence that a defendant’s conduct might have also have harmed others.

However, the issue of reprehensible conduct, which is considered potential harm to others, may be raised and such evidence is admissible on the issue of entitlement to punitive damages. Case law establishes (Philip Morris USA v. Williams, 127 S. Ct. 1057 (2007) that a jury may consider harm to others on entitlement; but it may not punish the defendant for harm to others. The Williams case establishes three elements for how reprehensible conduct may be examined on a punitive damages claim; 1.) A jury may punish a defendant for actual harm caused the plaintiff and may consider potential harm caused the plaintiff in assessing reprehensibility, 2.) A jury may consider actual harm to others as well as potential harm to others in assessing the reprehensibility of defendant’s misconduct and 3.) event though the evidence of actual and potential harm to others may be considered for reprehensibility purposes, a jury may not punish a defendant based on such evidence.

The punitive damage arena is a difficult legal maze where evidence must support the claim. But the very threat of punitive damages based on a defendant’s reprehensible conduct may often time lead to the case be settled or resolved or more importantly act as deterrent for a defendant (individual or company) to change their future conduct.