In the past on this blog, we have written about punitive damages. These are the sums awarded to a personal injury victim that are not representative of the damages suffered by that person. In the vast majority of tort cases, the monies awarded to the plaintiff account for lost wages, medical expenses, property damage, loss of future earnings, or, perhaps, pain and suffering. But, punitive damages are not frequently awarded. The point of punitive damages is simply to punish the negligent party and to discourage such actions by that entity or any other in the future. When the actions of the defendant are said to have reckless indifference, moral turpitude, wantonness, malice, or willfulness to the rights of others, the court might award punitive damages to the plaintiff and the sum will vary, depending on the financial status of the defendant. For instance, if that defendant was an individual, punitive damages of $5,000 would likely be a painful blow and a very effective punishment. If the defendant is a fairly successful business doing millions of dollars of business per year, punitive damages might be assessed in the hundreds of thousands. But, when the company is a multi-billion dollar business, operating in numerous countries around the world, then the figure is likely to be much larger to ensure that the punishment is significant enough to make a point.
This can explain the recent verdict read in a Colorado court. Even the personal injury attorney was likely stunned at the figure divulged at the conclusion of the case — $52 million. It was a record for the greatest personal injury victim verdict in the state. The jury decided that a punishment was in order, and this kind of money would ensure that the defendants – Honda Motor Co. and AGC Automotive (windshield manufacturer) – received the message loud and clear.
This decision came after hearing the case of a woman whose car flipped multiple times when she was hit by a vehicle crossing into her lane. The outcome was tragic. The plaintiff suffered irreversible spinal cord damage and a cervical fracture. As a result, this personal injury victim will never have use of her lower extremities and will face significant restrictions in the use of her hands for the rest of her life.
The punitive damages were undoubtedly included in the verdict of the jury due to the extreme nature of the woman’s injuries. I have not seen a verdict of this magnitude in St. Petersburg (though punitive damages have been awarded in the past). While this was a very substantial verdict in favor of the plaintiff, it is not the largest ever awarded by a personal injury court.
In 1999, the New York Times covered a story straight out of the personal injury courts because the outcome was so uncommon. In this case, the plaintiff took on automotive giant General Motors. A mother, her four children, and a family friend were on the road on Christmas Eve when a drunk driver slammed into their stopped vehicle. The impact was enough to cause the Chevy Malibu to explode. All those within the vehicle were very badly burned and lucky to survive, though all were forced to face a lifetime of disfigurement and therapy.
GM representatives were undoubtedly floored when the verdict was read — $107.6 million in compensatory damages and $4.8 billion in punitive damages. That decision made it the largest verdict in a personal injury case in the country.
Will you stand a chance of getting such an extreme verdict as seen in cases like this in your own Saint Petersburg personal injury case? Probably not. In fact, chances are slim that punitive damages will be assessed at all, but these cases do stand as proof that, in extreme situations, the courts can, and do, award large sums to the most deserving victims. If you think your case may be one of those, speak to your personal injury attorney about punitive damages.