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Award for Punitive Damages in a Personal Injury Case? Top-Rated Miami Law Firm Discusses Recent Decision of State Farm vs. Brewer

In Florida car accident cases, the issue of punitive damages arises in the context of whether the driver who caused the accident was under the influence of alcohol or drugs or is operating recklessly. Punitive damages punish certain behavior and reach beyond auto accident policies to a person’s pocket. A jury can award punitive damages in addition to an award of compensatory damages for past and future medical bills, lost wages, and loss of future earnings. With the combined 130 years of legal experience in South Florida, the car accident attorneys Greenberg, Stone, & Urbano have handled many cases for clients involving reckless behavior and have asked for punitive damages. Our vast experience gives us an advantage over other personal injury firms.

In the State Farm case, the defendant was a physician who fell asleep while behind the wheel and caused a car crash that injured the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs claimed that the defendant took prescription sleeping medication before leaving on a three-hour drive. The defendant, however, said that he was just tired from a long day and drifted off to sleep while driving. The defendant also contested the extent and seriousness of the plaintiff’s injuries.  The plaintiffs asked the court to separate the trial into two jury trials. The first part of the trial concerned whether the plaintiff proved that the defendant was negligent as well as the extent and the permanency of the plaintiffs’ injuries.  The plaintiffs asked the judge to hold a second trial on whether they were entitled to ask the jury for punitive damages because of the reckless act of the defendant taking sleeping pills before taking an anticipated three-hour drive. 

The jury found the defendant liable for the plaintiffs’ injuries and awarded the plaintiffs approximately $736,000 in compensatory damages after the first trial. The judge allowed the plaintiffs to ask the jury to impose punitive damages against the defendant in an amount sufficient to punish him. The defendant testified on his behalf. He told the jury he had tax bills and banking and retirement accounts valued at $300,000. Therefore, according to the testimony which the plaintiffs did not refute, the defendant had a net worth of $284,000. The jury awarded the plaintiffs $284,000 as punitive damages.  The defendant appealed the judgment awarding punitive damages claiming that some damages are excessive because it was 100% of his net worth.

The Florida appeals court agreed with the defendant.  An award of punitive damages in Florida can be so large as to violate the defendant’s constitution rights to due process of law. The appeals court said that two reasons for permitting punitive awards exist: punishing wrongful behavior and hopefully providing an incentive to deter future reckless conduct by the defendant.  The amount of punishment, that is punitive damages, is left to the discretion of the jury. However, grossly excessive punitive damages violate the defendant’s constitutional rights.

The appeals court defined what it by the phrase “grossly excessive.” In Florida, grossly excessive punitive damages are disproportionate to the defendant’s net worth.  The jury must balance the defendant’s ability to pay while avoiding causing the defendant to go bankrupt.  It is a fine line between punishment and deterrence and economically destroying the defendant.  The appeals court found that awarding 100% of the defendant’s net worth as punitive damages in constitutionally excessive. Therefore, the appeals court ordered the case back to court and had the trial judge reduce the punitive damages if the plaintiffs agree, if not, then the plaintiffs can have a new trial on the issue of punitive damages.

Reckless Behavior Which Injures Innocent People Must Be Punished

If you or a loved one suffered personal injuries caused by a reckless driver in South Florida, then consider hiring the law firm that the Miami Herald  hailed as one of the top law firms in Miami.  With over 130 years of collective legal experience, Greenberg, Stone, & Urbano. Greenberg, Stone, & Urbano has a reputation for excellence with an AV rating by Martindale Hubbell. Call Greenberg, Stone, & Urbano today at (888) 499-9700 or (305) 595-2400 to schedule your free consultation.

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