Punitive Damages and Florida Hit-and-Run Cases

We advocate on behalf of people who've been injured or even killed as a result of someone else's acts. Our clients are often angry with those who caused them harm, a position that is certainly understandable and, in truth, an emotion we sometimes share. One of the most upsetting scenarios in the arena of automobile accidents is a hit-and-run.

In past entries, we've discussed civil damages and noted that punitive damages, which are intended to punish the wrongdoer, are reserved for the most extreme cases. In today's blog entry we look at whether, assuming the perpetrator is located, a Florida court is likely to award punitive damages in a hit-and-run case.

An Overview of Damages

A quick review of the types of damages available in Florida personal injury cases:

  • Economic damages compensate the plaintiff for the financial repercussions of the accident, both those already incurred and those likely to be incurred in the future. Examples: medical costs, lost wages, inability to provide household services (i.e. housekeeper costs), etc.
  • Non-economic damages attempt to compensate a victim for the non-monetary impact of the accident. Also referred to as "pain and suffering," these damages are tougher to calculate but are lumped together with economic damages under the category "compensatory damages."
  • Punitive damages are different. Regulated by statute, these damages are aimed at punishing a wrongdoer and preventing them from doing the same thing again.

Delving Deeper into the Punitive Damages Rules

If a plaintiff files for punitive damages in a timely fashion, the court will follow a two-step process:

  1. Deciding if punitive damages are appropriate
  2. (If yes) Determining the amount

Punitive damages are governed by Florida Statues 768.72 and the sections that immediately follow. The statute provides that a defendant can only be held liable for punitive damages if the case involved intentional misconduct or gross negligence. Actions are called intentional misconduct if the defendant knew the act was wrong and highly likely to result in injury or damage, but s/he still made the intentional choice to pursue the conduct and it did indeed cause injury and/or damage. In this context, gross negligence means the action showed a conscious disregard/indifference for other people's rights, safety, or life.

If punitive damages are deemed appropriate, the next decision is the amount due. Section 786.73 limits the amount of punitive damages, based in part on the specific nature of the misconduct and the defendant's frame of mind. A key issue in deciding the amount of punitive damages is the amount required to effectively punish the offender. Damages aren't supposed to be a measure of the defendant's morality or immorality, although in real life these judgments often spill over into the amount awarded.

Applying the Rules to Hit-and-Run

Often, people hurt in a hit-and-run will be able to obtain punitive damages under one or both prongs of the statutory limitations. Even if the initial crash was accidental, leaving the scene is almost always intentional and something a reasonable person would say is clearly wrong. Failing to stop and aid the victim or causing a delay in the victim's treatment (either because no one else is around to call for help or because some attention is diverted from the victim's treatment and to the search for the offender) can cause additional injury or even lead to an unnecessary death. The defendant may try to argue that the hit-and-run didn't cause additional injuries or that it wasn't gross negligence because there were others available to give aid.

Ultimately, the answer to whether or not a hit-and-run victim is entitled to punitive damages is "maybe" or "sometimes." As plaintiff's counsel, we believe that hit-and-run incidents are typically worthy of punitive damages. However, it is a case-specific issue and the decision is based on the facts presented to the court.

We can't restore someone's health or bring back someone killed too soon. What the civil law can provide is money damages. For the most part, damages are about compensating a victim. However, in certain cases the defendant's actions are so extremely outside the realm, of acceptable behavior, the court uses damages to punish. We will work hard to present compelling evidence that will convince the court that punitive damages are justified. Call to discuss the issue of punitive damages and whether they might apply to your case.

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