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What Are Punitive Damages?

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What Are Punitive Damages?

Minnesota personal injury law authorizes three kinds of damages: economic damages, non-economic damages, and punitive damages. Economic damages are typically easy to put a dollar value on and include thighs like medical expenses, lost wages, out-of-pocket expenses, and more. Non-economic damages are difficult to reduce to a dollar value because of their intangible nature; examples include pain and suffering and emotional distress.

One principle that binds both economic damages and non-economic damages together is their compensatory intent. In other words, the purpose of both of these types of damages is to compensate the injured party for their losses. 

The term “punitive damages’, however, refers to a sum of money awarded by a court that is designed not to compensate the plaintiff but to punish the defendant. 

Courts Are Reluctant To Award Punitive Damages Even to Victorious Plaintiffs

Courts Are Reluctant To Award Punitive Damages Even to Victorious Plaintiffs

Most personal injury cases arise from accidental misconduct. As such, the personal injury system gravitates toward compensating injured plaintiffs, not punishing defendants. 

Nevertheless, from time to time, cases arise that justify the imposition of punitive damages. Normally, however, courts reserve the imposition of punitive damages to unusual cases.

Examples of Scenarios That Might Qualify You For Punitive Damages

There is never a guarantee of punitive damages. No matter how compelling the circumstances, a court can still refuse to grant them. Ultimately, it is usually up to a jury to decide whether justice and the broader social interest demand the award of punitive damages. Following are some possible examples:

  • A car accident with aggravating factors, such as an extreme DUI accident case.
  • A doctor performed surgery while they were drunk.
  • A bar bouncer beats a customer to death without provocation, resulting in a wrongful death claim (you might be able to sue the nightclub for punitive damages).
  • A dog owner trains their dog to viciously attack trespassers, and it badly mauls a child who wandered onto the property.
  • A driver in a fit of “road rage” intentionally causes an injury car accident.

It’s easy to think of dozens of other scenarios that might justify punitive damages. None of them are certain, however, as a court can always refuse to award them.

The Legal Standard: How To Justify Punitive Damages

Under Minnesota law, a court can award punitive damages only in the case of “clear and convincing evidence that the acts of the defendant show deliberate disregard for the rights or safety of others.”

“Deliberate Disregard”

“Deliberate disregard for the rights or safety of others” refers to an act that is brazen and callous at the very least. The defendant may or may not have specifically intended the results, but at the very least, they knew that the risk of injury was very high. 

In this sense, the “accident” was more than just accidental. Punitive damages also cover the situation where the defendant deliberately injures the plaintiff through criminal behavior. 

“Clear and Convincing Evidence”

When you seek to justify a claim for punitive damages, Minnesota will hold you to a higher standard of proof. The lower standard of proof, by which you justify demanding economic and noneconomic damages, is called “a preponderance of the evidence” standard. You can meet this standard by proving your entitlement to these damages with a 51% likelihood. 

Contrast “a preponderance of the evidence” with the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard used in criminal law. “Beyond a reasonable doubt” is a very difficult standard to meet. 

The “clear and convincing evidence” standard lies somewhere between these two standards. It’s more difficult to meet than “a preponderance of the evidence,” but it is easier to meet than “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Who Actually Pays Punitive Damages?

Most individual defendants cannot afford to pay punitive damages. Most insurance companies insert clauses into their policies stating that they are not liable for paying punitive damages. Governments, who must give their permission before you can sue them, do not allow personal injury plaintiffs to sue them for punitive damages. 

So who pays punitive damages? Typically, businesses are vulnerable to punitive damages awards. That is because the law holds them responsible for the acts of their employees. When it comes to economic damages and non-economic damages, employers can bear liability for the wrongful acts of their employees that fall within the scope of their business. 

You’re Going To Need an Experienced Minneapolis Personal Injury Lawyer if You Are Seeking Punitive Damages

Most people who eventually win generous personal injury awards hire a lawyer to help them. This need is all the more acute when you are seeking punitive damages. The more persuasive your Minneapolis personal injury lawyer, the better your chances of winning punitive damages. To speak with one of our experienced lawyers at Hall Law Personal Injury Attorneys, contact us today at (800) 292-1979.

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