Personal Injury: What You Should Know About Punitive Damages

An injured man.Damages are an essential part of any personal injury lawsuit. If you have been injured because of someone else’s negligent behavior, you may be entitled to receive damages. Most personal injury cases focus on compensatory damages, and rightfully so. These are designed to compensate the victim for injuries caused by the defendant. In some cases, punitive damages may also be available. 

What Are Punitive Damages in a Personal Injury Case?

Punitive damages are sometimes called “exemplary damages.” Punitive damages are used to punish at-fault parties for gross negligence. The defendant’s behavior must have been outrageous or egregious for you to qualify for this type of remedy. That’s because punitive damages aren’t meant to compensate for losses. Instead, they serve to punish the defendant and set an example for others to deter them from committing the same egregious conduct. 

Iowa Code § 668A.1 defines punitive damages. Before you can receive punitive damages in a personal injury case, the following criteria must be met:

  • You must satisfactorily document the defendant’s misconduct by clear and convincing evidence, and the evidence must show that the behavior constituted willful and wanton disregard for the rights or safety of another; and
  • You must show that the defendant’s behavior was explicitly directed at you, the claimant.

If you meet both criteria, you can receive full punitive damages. If you were not the direct target of the behavior, you might still be able to receive up to 25% of the damages. In that case, Iowa’s Civil Reparations Trust Fund receives the remaining 75%. 

Defining Willful and Wanton Disregard

When an individual fails to act with reasonable care, and their actions cause harm, this constitutes standard negligence. Willful and wanton disregard is a higher degree of negligence. Wanton disregard is not always deliberately malicious, but it is more serious than carelessness. Acting with willful and wanton disregard means that the danger of the action is understood by the person performing the action. They know it is likely to cause substantial harm, yet they do it anyway. In some situations, repeated negligent behavior may also demonstrate a willful and wanton disregard for the safety and welfare of others. Such is the case for defendants who repeatedly drive intoxicated. 

Compensatory and Punitive Damages in Personal Injury Cases

If the plaintiff is not eligible for compensatory damages, then punitive damages are not available. Compensatory damages compensate the injured party for their injuries and associated costs. These can consist of economic and non-economic damages. 

  • Economic damages: These damages cover expenses incurred because of the accident or injury—such as medical bills, physical therapy, lost wages, property damage, and other tangible costs. 
  • Non-economic damages: These include compensation for less tangible, negative impacts on the plaintiff—such as pain and suffering, post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, loss of enjoyment of life, and more. 

It is important to understand how much your case’s compensatory damages are worth. An experienced injury attorney will help you compile all necessary documentation to prove expenses and evidence of the injury’s impact on your life. 

Requesting Punitive Damages

A personal injury complaint is a document that sets forth general allegations of wrongdoing by the defendant. Upon filing the lawsuit, your injury lawyer should make it clear that evidence supports outrageous, reckless, or repeated behavior. The court must then properly instruct the jury regarding punitive damages. Punitive damages are not overly common in Iowa, so it is important to choose an attorney with experience in Iowa personal injury cases. 

Limitations on Punitive Damages 

Iowa personal injury claims have a two-year statute of limitations. This means that a victim must file a complaint within two years of the time of the accident or injury. Failure to make a timely filing will bar legal recovery. It is important to note that Iowa uses a modified comparative fault compensation system. That means that if the injured party is partially at fault, their recovery will be deducted by their percentage of negligence. This can be tricky to calculate and is another reason that experienced legal representation is essential to the success of your case. 

There is no legal cap on punitive damages for Iowa civil cases. However, the Tort Claims Act limits a plaintiff’s ability to recover punitive damages from defendants who are state agencies or state employees. 

Awards for Punitive Damages

The amount awarded for punitive damages depends heavily on the degree of negligence and severity of the damage. If the defendant’s actions were very obviously willful and wanton, it is more likely that punitive damages will be applied. It is also important to remember that the court may use punitive damages to set an example for other potential wrongdoers. 

A jury decides the exact amount of punitive damages awarded in a given case. The jury considers both objective and subjective factors, including the reprehensibility of the defendant’s misconduct, the severity of the plaintiff’s injury, and the amount of money that would deter the defendant based on their wealth. Wealthy or corporate defendants typically face higher punitive damages awards than individuals because it takes more to deter them from similar conduct in the future.

Neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor the Iowa Supreme Court has set a rigid precedent for punitive damages. Generally, they are awarded at a specific ratio to the amount of compensatory damages. 

Can a Lawyer Help Me Get Punitive Damages?

Not every personal injury case deserves an award of punitive damages. That is because honest accidents do happen. You will need to clearly demonstrate the extent of the defendant’s negligence. 

The experienced team at 303 Legal, P.C. can take steps to maximize recovery, including punitive damages through investigation, communication, evidence gathering, timely filings, negotiations, and litigation if necessary. We are here to help you obtain a meaningful award for your injuries. Contact us today to schedule your case consultation.