If you have been injured in an auto accident or have lost a family member in a wrongful death incident, you may be wondering whether punitive damages may apply to your case. Punitive damages are also called exemplary damages and are controlled mainly by statute within the state of Texas and case law. If you have questions – call a top-rated punitive damage lawyer in Houston for answers- (281) 587-1111.
What are punitive damages?
Punitive or exemplary damages are damages that are in addition to and different from “actual damages”. Actual damages in a personal injury lawsuit would be things like medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering, mental anguish, disability, and disfigurement. In a wrongful death lawsuit, actual damages would include loss of consortium, financial losses, loss of companionship and society, mental anguish, and loss of inheritance.
Punitive damages are actually punishment damages and are not measured by the actual damages sustained by the victim. Punitive damages are meant to deter conduct in the future that society believes is reprehensible. In other words, punitive damages are such that they are intended to punish the behavior of a defendant to prevent unconscionable conduct from occurring again!
What is the law in Texas on punitive damages?
Under Texas law, punitive damages are referred to as exemplary damages. They are given in personal injury cases where victim proves by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant’s actions amounted to gross negligence, malice, or fraud.
What is gross negligence?
Gross negligence is often pled in personal injury cases in the state of Texas. Gross negligence is defined as an act or omission, which when viewed objectively from the standpoint of the defendant at the time of its occurrence involves an extreme degree of risk, considering the probability and magnitude of the potential harm to others;
And of which the defendant has actual, subjective awareness of the risk involved, but nevertheless proceeds with conscious indifference to the rights, safety, or welfare of others. In short, punitive damages are foe when the defendant knew his conduct was wrong and dangerous but proceeded anyway!
Gross negligence is not saying that the defendant actually intended to hurt anyone only that they knew that their contract was such that it involved dangerous behavior. A good example would be a person who went to happy hour at the local watering hole and consumed a fair amount of alcohol before getting behind the wheel of their vehicle. When they started out on their trip home, they did not intend to have an accident or to hurt anyone, yet knew they were intoxicated and shouldn’t be driving.
In this example, a drunk driving accident lawyer may sue for gross negligence if they feel they can prove the case by clear and convincing evidence. While they did not intend to hurt anyone, they did consciously get behind the wheel, knowing that it was dangerous to do so.
What is malice?
Malice refers to a specific intent by the defendant to cause substantial injury.
Punitive damages law in Texas
The law of punitive damages in Texas is found in Chapter 41 of the Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code. The law allows the recovery of exemplary or punitive damages only if the victim can prove by clear and convincing evidence that the harm was caused by fraud, malice, or gross negligence. The jury must be unanimous in their verdict.
In determining the number for exemplary damages, the jury shall consider evidence, if any relating to:
- The nature of the wrong;
- The character of the conduct involved;
- The degree of culpability of the wrongdoer;
- The situation and sensibilities of the parties concerned;
- The extent to which conduct offends a public sense of justice and propriety; and
- The net worth of the defendant.
Net worth is the total assets of a person minus the total liabilities of the person on the date determined appropriate by the trial court. Accordingly, a defendant’s net worth is relevant and subject to discovery in a lawsuit where the plaintiff seeks to recover exemplary damages. However, Section 41.0115 allows a defendant to file a motion to limit discovery of net worth and tell a claimant has demonstrated a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of the claim for exemplary damages.
Thus, an accident victim must first file a motion to obtain net worth discovery and show the trial court that there is a substantial likelihood of success to get such discovery. Our punitive damages lawyers have been hugely successful in many Texas cases.
Damage caps in Texas for punitive damages
Texas law limits or caps the amounts punitive damages in section 41.008 Texas Civil Practice and Remedy Code.
In Texas, punitive damages are limited to the greater of:
1. A) Two times the amount of economic damages; b) An amount equal to any noneconomic damages found by the jury not to exceed $750,000 or 2. $200,000.
Economic damages are direct economic losses. This would be items like lost wages, medical expenses, and the like. Conversely, noneconomic damages would be items like pain-and-suffering, mental anguish, emotional pain, loss of consortium, disfigurement, physical impairment, loss of companionship and society, loss of enjoyment of life.
Situations where the damage caps do not apply in Texas
There are certain areas where the punitive damage caps provided in Texas law are not limited in amount. Lawmakers in Texas have specified 17 separate Penal Code sections that will overcome the damage limits on exemplary claims.
The most commonly used exceptions for personal injury attorneys include Penal Code section 49.07 intoxication assault, Penal Code section 49.08 intoxication manslaughter, and section 22.04 injury to the child or elderly person.
To take advantage of the exceptions to the punitive damage caps, the plaintiff must obtain a specific jury finding that the defendant violated one of the criminal code sections. Additionally, the violation must have been committed knowingly and intentionally.
Corporate responsibility and punitive damages in Texas
To hold a corporation accountable for exemplary or punitive damages based upon the actions of its employee, the plaintiff must prove that:
- The principal authorizes the doing and the manner of the act;
- The agent was unfit, and the principal was reckless in employing him:
- The agent was employed in a managerial capacity and was acting in the scope of employment; or
- The employer or manager of the employer ratified or prove the act.
The actions of a vice principal are deemed to be the actions of a corporation for purposes of exemplary damages. This is because a vice-principal represents the corporation in its corporate capacity. This means that the actions of specific individuals will be deemed to be the actions of the corporation. Vice principals can include corporate officers, those with authority to employ direct and discharge employees, those engaged in the performance of nondelegable duties, and those delegated the management of all or part of the business.
An example where punitive damages might be sought by a truck accident lawyer includes where the trucking company knew the vehicle was out of service but required the 18-wheeler to be used instead of doing the required repairs first.
Bifurcation of the trial on punitive damages
Texas provides a procedure where the trial can be split into two separate parts to keep a jury from hearing net worth testimony that may impact the liability determination. If the defendant elects to bifurcate the trial, they must file a motion before the jury selection or as otherwise ordered by a court in a pretrial order. Upon motion of any defendant, the bifurcation must occur.
If a defendant elects to split the trial, the first portion of the trial is to determine liability for actual damages and exemplary damages and the number of actual damages. If the responsibility for exemplary damages is established in the first portion of the trial. The second portion of the trial will include the awarding of exemplary damages.
Frequently, defendants elect to engage in serious settlement discussions after positive findings in the first portion of the trial.
Speak with an experienced punitive damage attorney
If you have been injured and believe punitive damages may be appropriate and would like to speak with an experienced punitive damage lawyer, call us for a no-obligation consultation. We have handled hundreds of punitive damage lawsuits.
There is never a charge for an initial consultation on an injury accident.