When a person is injured in an accident caused by someone else’s actions, the goal of the subsequent tort, or bodily injury, claim is to make the victim, or plaintiff, whole. When the defendant’s actions are found to have been an intentional disregard for the rights and safety of others, the potential for a punitive damages claim arises.
Punitive damages are monies awarded to the plaintiff, in excess of their bodily injury settlement. At least in part, they are intended to punish the defendant for their actions. As noted above, the tort, or bodily injury, claim is intended to justly compensate the plaintiff for their injuries and make them whole. Punitive damage claims have the potential to make the plaintiff more than whole.
Determining an accepted understanding of intentional disregard has proven extremely difficult, with many contested definitions arising in each case presented before the Court. However, the accepted framework for this concept is acting with purpose “to cause the result or consequence or be aware that the result or consequence is substantially certain to occur from the person’s conduct.” (Strenke, 2005 WI 25 at 36) Intention disregard can more precisely be defined as conduct that is (a) deliberate; (b) in actual disregard for the Plaintiff’s rights and; (c) sufficiently aggravated to warrant punishment by punitive damages.
Even with an accepted understanding, various interpretations remain as to what constitutes an awareness or certainty and whose rights are being disregarded. In addition, there are other factors, like timing, that affect the viability of a punitive damages claim.
In 2005, the case of Strenke v. Hogner came before the Wisconsin Supreme Court that served to better define what is required to prove an intentional disregard for one’s rights. In this case, the defendant had been driving with a BAC of .269, about three times the legal limit, resulting in an accident that injured the plaintiff. Punitive damages were awarded in this case based upon the following parameters: (1) The defendant wasn’t forced or coerced to drink and drive; it was done by willful choice; (2) The defendant had four previous convictions for drunk driving and was well over the legal limit when he caused the accident; and (3) The defendant took away the plaintiff’s right to safety when he drove under the influence and impaired.
The Court did note that intent to injure is not required when considering grounds for a punitive damages case. Wis. Stat. 895.043(3) specifically states, “The plaintiff may receive punitive damages if evidence is submitted showing that the defendant acted maliciously toward the plaintiff or in an intentional disregard of the rights of the plaintiff.” It does not mention “injury”. Therefore, the Court opined that while injury is usually the result, it does not have to be the intention.
In 2014, the Wisconsin Government capped punitive damage claims at $200,000 or double the amount recovered for compensatory damages, whichever is greater. (WIS. STAT. 895.043). This was a drastic reduction from the previous $1 million limit. In a pivotal case, Kimble vs. Land Concepts, Inc., the Court found that excessive damages awarded that are disproportionate to the defendant’s actions or excessive under the circumstances of the case violate due process. However, it is likely that the preservation of businesses also played into the government’s overall decision to limit the collectable amount of punitive damages.
If you have been injured in an accident, contact a qualified attorney today. Punitive damage claims can be very difficult to prove, but with the help of a skilled attorney, you could be entitled to more compensation than you think. www.doardrill.com