What are Punitive Damages in Texas?

When you are injured because of another person’s negligent acts, errors, or wrongdoing, you may want to punish that person. If the accident or incident involved a crime, the person could face criminal charges and penalties.

However, there is very little you can do to punish the person other than holding them financially liable for your damages.

Damages in a personal injury case include financial losses (economic damages). They also include the pain and suffering you experienced because of the accident and injury (non-economic damages).

However, in a small number of cases, the court might award punitive damages. Punitive damages might be available in some cases involving car accidents, wrongful death claims, construction accidents, or a specific type of conduct by the person who caused the injury. 

Why are Punitive Damages Awarded in Texas Personal Injury Cases?

Statue of Justice and lawyer working on a laptop

Punitive damages are defined by statute. They are also known as exemplary damages. According to the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code §40.011(5), exemplary damages are awarded to penalize or punish. The damages are not intended to compensate the victim for a loss.

The intent is to punish the actions of the perpetrator instead of attempting to make the victim “whole” again after an accident or injury.

Punitive damages are not available in all personal injury cases. In §41.003, the code sets forth the standards for a victim to recover punitive damages. A victim must prove through clear and convincing evidence that harm caused to the victim resulted from gross negligence, malice, or fraud

Furthermore, before a jury can award punitive damages in a personal injury case, the jury must come to a unanimous decision that the defendant is liable for the plaintiff’s damages. Also, there must be a unanimous decision regarding the amount of punitive damages to award in the case.

Most punitive damage awards in personal injury cases involve findings of gross negligence or malice.

What is Gross Negligence and Malice in Personal Injury Cases?

Personal injury claims generally involve allegations of negligence. Proving negligence requires that you demonstrate that the defendant owed you a duty of care. The defendant’s breach of the duty of care caused the accident or incident that resulted in your injuries and damages.

Gross negligence is a step above negligence. It is defined by statute as an omission or an act that involves an extreme degree of risk considering the potential for harm to others. It also requires that the actor was aware of the risk or had a subjective awareness of the risk and decided to proceed without a conscious indifference to the safety, rights, and welfare of others.

The statute does not require you to prove that the person intended to hurt anyone. You only need to prove that the person knew his conduct could put others at risk and proceed to do so regardless of that risk.

drunk driving

DUI accidents and employers who intentionally violate or ignore safety measures are examples of personal injury cases that could result in an award for punitive damages. Punitive damages may also be awarded in personal injury cases involving malice. Malice is defined as having the specific intent to cause substantial injury or harm to another person.

Personal injury claims involving assault could give rise to a punitive damage claim.

Evidence the Jury Must Consider When Deciding How Much to Award for Punitive Damages

The statute gives the trier of fact, the jurors in a jury trial, the authority to determine if the victim has proven the elements of a punitive damage claim by clear and convincing evidence. If so, the jurors decide how much to award for punitive damages.

The statute sets forth the evidence jurors must consider when deciding the amount of punitive damages. The evidence jurors must consider includes:

  • The nature of the wrong
  • The character of the defendant’s conduct
  • The degree of the culpability of the defendant
  • The sensibilities and situation of the parties involved
  • The extent to which the conduct offends a public sense of decency and justice
  • The net worth of the defendant

The plaintiff can demand evidence from the defendant regarding his net worth. However, the defendant can ask the court to limit discovery related to net worth until the plaintiff has demonstrated that the plaintiff has a substantial likelihood of proving the case for punitive damages.

Are There Caps on Punitive Damages in Texas?

Yes, Texas does limit the amount of punitive damages a plaintiff may receive in a personal injury case. Punitive damages are capped at the greater of $200,000 in cases in which economic damages are not awarded or an amount equal to double the economic losses plus an equal amount of non-economic damages up to $750,000.

There are some situations in which the caps on punitive damages could be waived for violating sections of the Texas Penal Code. For example, caps on punitive damages are waived in cases involving intoxication assault or intoxication manslaughter.

Filing Claims for Punitive Damages

lawyer

A case involving punitive damages can be complicated. Proving the legal elements by clear and convincing evidence is a daunting task. If you believe your case involves punitive damages, it is best to talk with a lawyer who handles cases involving these matters.

Adding punitive damages in a case can significantly increase the value of the claim.

When you are dealing with a permanent impairment or disability, recovering the maximum compensation available for your case can help you with future loss of income, medical treatment, and personal care. The compensation can also provide for the needs of your family if you cannot work.

However, your time to file a claim is restricted by the statutes of limitations. Most personal injury claims must be filed within two years from the date of the accident. 

Do not delay in seeking legal advice regarding your personal injury claim. The longer you wait, the greater the chance that evidence could disappear or be destroyed. You need this evidence to prove fault and liability. 

An attorney can take immediate steps to preserve evidence and work to uncover additional evidence that can help prove your case. Get help from a trusted legal advocate for injury victims.