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In a personal injury or wrongful death case, the plaintiff is entitled to recover damages for the wrong caused by the negligence of another. Most of the time, recoverable damages are compensatory in nature, meaning they are there to compensate the plaintiff for the injuries caused. Compensatory damages are usually classified as economic or non-economic: economic damages are those tangible expenses which can be identified fairly objectively, such as property damage, lost wages, medical expenses, and costs of rehabilitation and retaining; non-economic damages, on the other hand, are somewhat more subjective and refer to aspects of the injury such as pain and suffering, emotional distress, mental anguish, the loss of enjoyment in life or the loss of a particular function. Most personal injury and wrongful death cases involve a combination of economic and non-economic compensatory damages.
There is another type of damages known as punitive or exemplary damages. These damages are not awarded in every case and are not designed to directly compensate the plaintiff. Rather, the purpose of punitive or exemplary damages is to punish the defendant or make an example out of him or her for others. Punitive damage awards go beyond mere negligence or carelessness and are reserved for situations where the defendant was so reckless that he or she showed a high disregard for the consequences of his or her actions. Engaging in intentional, willful or deliberate conduct that harms another may also be a reason to award punitive damages.
A doctor or hospital “doctoring” a patient’s medical chart to hide evidence of medical malpractice is an example of the kind of willful action and reckless indifference in which the courts have found punitive damages to be appropriate. Causing a car accident by driving drunk or at a very high speed may be another situation where the jury wants to send a message to the public that this type of behavior will not be tolerated by society. Where the defendant is a huge corporation, such as in a products liability or defective drugs case, a large punitive damages award may be the only way to make the company pay attention to the harm it is causing and change its corporate behavior.
Punitive damages are also available when they are specifically authorized by statute. For instance, New York Public Health Law 2801-d allows a nursing home resident to sue the nursing home for a deprivation of rights or benefits granted to them by law, regulations, or contract. This law also authorizes punitive damages when the nursing home acts willfully or in reckless disregard of the resident’s lawful rights.
Courts are generally reluctant to allow punitive damages awards, and the requirements of proving a high level of outrageous or egregious conduct often create a big hurdle to obtaining punitive damages. However, whenever punitive damages appear appropriate in a case, we will fight to see that the issue is fully litigated in the interests of justice. In New York City, contact Leandros A. Vrionedes, P.C. to discuss whether punitive damages may be appropriate in your personal injury or wrongful death matter.