What are Punitive Damages in a Personal Injury Case?

What are punitive damages in a personal injury case.

Many accidents are caused by negligence, carelessness, or recklessness due to another’s failure to take reasonable precautions. If you were injured by the wrongful conduct of someone else, you may be entitled to file a personal injury action against them. In doing so, you may be able to recover not only your economic and non-economic damages — but in some cases, you may be eligible to receive an award of punitive damages.

What are Punitive Damages?

Punitive damages are a category of damages that may be awarded in a personal injury case. Unlike compensatory damages, they are not meant to make a victim whole. Instead, they are put in place as a matter of public policy to punish the defendant — and deter others from engaging in similar wrongful conduct. An accident victim can still receive an award for things like medical costs, lost wages, out-of-pocket costs, and pain and suffering in addition to punitive damages. However, it’s vital to be aware that these damages aren’t automatically awarded and are only available in a small percentage of cases.

Significantly, punitive damages are a remedy, rather than an independent cause of action. They can only be awarded if a plaintiff prevails on one or more causes of action. Even if a plaintiff only receives a nominal award of damages, punitive damages may still be recovered. But it’s essential to note that punitive damages cannot be awarded in personal injury cases against the state of Alaska or a municipality without statutory authorization.

When are Punitive Damages Awarded in Alaska?

While many personal injury lawsuits can involve a defendant’s egregious behavior, punitive damages are only available in a small number of cases in Alaska. Specifically, under 09.17.020 of the Alaska Code of Civil Procedure, punitive damages can be awarded if the jury finds that the plaintiff has proven any of the following elements by clear and convincing evidence:

  • The defendant’s conduct was outrageous
  • The defendant acted with malice or bad motives
  • The defendant acted with reckless indifference to another person

The “clear and convincing” evidence burden of proof should not be confused with the burden of proof required for a finding of negligence — which is a “preponderance of the evidence” — or the criminal burden of proof, “beyond a reasonable doubt.” A preponderance of the evidence means that it is more likely than not the defendant caused the plaintiff’s injuries. In contrast, clear and convincing is a higher burden of proof that means an alleged fact has a high probability of truth and there are no serious doubts as to its truthfulness.

In other words, it is not necessary that a jury in a personal injury case find the fact to be conclusively true or true beyond a reasonable doubt in order to determine that an award of punitive damages is appropriate. The jury must simply find that it is highly probable that the alleged fact is true.

How Much Compensation Can Be Awarded for Punitive Damages?

While the primary focus in a personal injury lawsuit focuses on liability, the amount of punitive damages to be awarded must be considered at a separate proceeding. Under the statute, the jury may consider the likelihood that serious harm would arise as a result of the defendant’s conduct and their degree of awareness that harm could occur. Other factors that a jury might consider can include the amount of financial gain by the defendant, the duration of the conduct, any intentional concealment of the conduct, the defendant’s financial condition, and the defendant’s attitude toward their conduct.

Under Alaska law, a victim can recover up to three times the amount of compensatory damages or $500,000, whichever amount is greater. It’s critical to understand that if punitive damages are awarded, the state of Alaska receives a certain amount. The court is required to deposit 50% of the amount of punitive damages into a “general fund” of the state.

Contact an Experienced Alaska Personal Injury Attorney

In the event you were hurt by someone else’s negligence, it’s crucial to ensure they are held accountable for the losses they caused you to suffer. A knowledgeable personal injury attorney can help you navigate the legal process and fight for your right to receive both compensatory and punitive damages, depending on the facts of your case.

Proudly serving accident victims in Anchorage, Soldotna, Kenai, Palmer, Wasilla, and other areas of Alaska, The Trial Guy, Eric Derleth, is dedicated to guiding accident victims every step of the way in their personal injury matters. Call 907-262-9164 to schedule a free consultation at our Anchorage or Soldotna office, or contact us online. Our phone lines are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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