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Punitive damages typically are asserted in truck accident cases. This is because the conduct of truckers and trucking companies – the defendants – often fits the limited circumstances in which Florida law allows punitive damages to be awarded in claims against individuals and their corporate employers.
If the accident victim, or plaintiff, prevails on the punitive damages claim, it can add significantly to the total amount awarded in a lawsuit.
Here are a few important facts you should know about asserting punitive damages in truck accident cases in Florida:
Compensatory damages are intended to make a plaintiff “whole.” For instance, they are aimed at compensating an accident victim for medical expenses, lost income and pain and suffering caused by a collision with a tractor-trailer.
Punitive damages, on the other hand, are meant to punish a defendant and to deter the defendant – and, presumably, others in the same position – from repeating such misconduct in the future.
A truck accident lawsuit is initiated by the filing of a complaint (typically in the county where the accident happened). Florida law allows this complaint to be changed, or amended, to add a claim for punitive damages.
To add the punitive damages claim, a plaintiff must show there is a “reasonable basis for recovery” of the damages. A plaintiff can seek evidence through a process called “discovery” that is directly aimed at establishing this basis.
Typically, a defendant will object to adding a punitive damages claim. This requires a hearing to be held. (See this video our firm recently posted to our Facebook page, showing attorney Frank M. Eidson as he walked into the Circuit Civil Court in West Palm Beach for such a hearing.)
To recover punitive damages, a plaintiff must show that a defendant personally engaged in one of two categories of conduct:
In truck accident cases, the conduct at issue usually falls in the second category.
“Gross negligence” often is established in truck accident cases based on the truck driver’s pattern of violating state and federal safety regulations and other traffic laws. For example:
Under Florida law, a trucking company can be held liable for punitive damages based on the conduct of one of its drivers. In addition to showing that the driver was engaged in “intentional misconduct” or “gross negligence,” a plaintiff must also show that an officer, director or manager of the trucking company:
In most cases, this is established through evidence that the trucking company hired a driver who had no business being behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer, failed to properly supervise the driver or actually encouraged the misconduct. For example:
If a punitive damages claim is established in a truck accident case, the amount awarded would most likely be capped.
Under Florida law, punitive damages are limited to three times the amount of compensatory damages or $500,000 – whichever is greater.
If it can be shown that the trucking company was “motivated solely by unreasonable financial gain,” and the company actually knew of the “unreasonably dangerous nature of the conduct” and “high likelihood of injury” resulting from it, the cap would be higher. The cap would be set at four times the amount of compensatory damages or $2 million – whichever is greater. (It is actually easy to imagine situations in which this situation could arise in truck accident cases.)
In rare cases, no cap would be placed on the punitive damages award. This would arise only if it could be shown that the trucker or trucking company acted with “specific intent to harm.” An example might be a road rage incident.
When your attorney investigates your truck accident case, the attorney’s goal should be to maximize the amount you recover. This means your attorney should go beyond seeking compensatory damages and, where warranted, seek a recovery of punitive damages as well.
If you would like to learn more about seeking damages in a truck accident case that has impacted you or a family member, please feel free to contact Frank M. Eidson, P.A. We can provide a free consultation about your case.