If you were hurt in an accident, you can file a lawsuit to get you compensation for the harm you faced. But what about the defendant who injured you? What happens to them? Making them pay (literally) for the harm they caused you is one thing, but some accidents are caused by really dangerous behavior. Can you get punitive damages for what they did to you?
In limited cases, Maryland law does allow you to sue for punitive damages. To get these damages, you usually have to show that the defendant acted with something more than just negligence or carelessness, usually requiring something equivalent to “actual malice” – a legal standard we will discuss below. These damages usually face no cap and might be quite high in your case, but there are some other restrictions to be aware of.
For a free case review, call the Maryland personal injury attorneys at Rice, Murtha & Psoras today at (410) 694-7291.
When Can You Get Punitive Damages in Maryland?
There are a few thresholds and standards you need to meet to be able to get punitive damages in your case. Some of these issues are practical matters, while others are more complex legal standards that need to be met:
You Must Have a Lawsuit
Punitive damages are awarded by courts, not by insurance companies or defendants offering you a settlement. No party is going to voluntarily give you additional money to punish themselves, so you need a court’s backing to get punitive damages. As such, these damages are only issued after our Ocean City, MD personal injury lawyers take your case through a lawsuit and get you a jury award in court.
You Have to Win Your Case
Punitive damages are not issued if you lose your case. Again, these damages are issued as part of a jury verdict (or the judge’s verdict in a bench trial). As such, you must prove every element of your injury case and win in court before the court can order damages. Punitive damages can only be added on to other compensatory damages (i.e., economic or non-economic damages for the injury or harm you suffered).
Injury Cases and Serious Claims
Punitive damages are usually only awarded in injury cases because of these strict requirements. However, that does not mean the injury case has to be an accidental one. Cases involving negligence – like car accidents and slip and falls – can involve punitive damages, but so can intentional injury cases like battery claims. Additionally, non-physical “injuries” like libel and slander can also involve punitive damages.
“Actual Malice” or Similar Conduct
Courts in Maryland have held that “actual malice” is required for punitive damages. For example, Darcars Motors of Silver Spring v. Borzym explicitly uses the phrase “actual malice,” but other courts in other cases have more specifically stated that the elements that make up actual malice are required, like “fraud” or “evil intent.”
All of this language is a bit archaic and legalistic, but the law essentially requires that the defendant did something more than merely injure you before punitive damages can be awarded. Instead, they have to have had some kind of recognition that what they were doing was likely to cause you injury, and they went ahead anyway without consideration of that risk. Additionally, actual intent to cause you injury can often satisfy this “malice” requirement too.
In cases involving non-physical injuries – such as monetary injuries – fraud might be necessary for punitive damages.
What Are Punitive Damages and How Are They Decided in Maryland?
Punitive damages are separate from the “compensatory” damages you get in an injury case. Compensatory damages are there to reimburse you for expenses and “make you whole” – i.e., to pay you back – for other harms you faced. So for example, if you were injured and faced medical bills and time off work, then the medical expenses and lost wages would be compensatory damages. You can also get compensatory damages for “non-economic” harms like mental and emotional distress or pain and suffering.
Goals of Punitive Damages
Punitive damages, on the other hand, focus on the defendant, not the victim. These damages are meant to punish them for what they did. Sometimes these damages are called “exemplary damages” in that they make an example out of the defendant.
Punitive damages are also intended to deter future similar incidents. There are two types of deterrence involved here: specific deterrence and general deterrence. Specific deterrence is when you try to prevent the same actor – the same person or company – from repeating similar actions. General deterrence is when you try to stop similarly situated parties from doing the same thing by making an example of the defendant in this case.
Calculating Punitive Damages
Punitive damages are focused on the defendant and how bad their conduct was rather than how much harm the victim faced. As such, punitive damages are often calculated by looking at how much the court needs to order in damages to make the defendant feel the impact of the damages. This often means issuing higher punitive damages in cases involving large companies and corporations than in cases involving individuals. For example, a trucking company that violated federal regulations and forced its drivers to falsify driving logs could face very high punitives, but a working-class driver who caused a crash during a fit of road rage might face lower punitives.
Limits on Punitive Damages
Aside from the actual malice requirement and other requirements discussed above, there are other limits on how much the court can award. Specifically, courts must make the punitive damages proportionate to the defendant’s actions; they cannot issue outrageously high damages for minor conduct just because the defendant can afford them.
Courts have variously put caps at a 10:1 ratio compared to the other damages in the case, but a 2018 case did uphold a 20:1 ratio, recognizing that lighter conduct might not qualify for such a high ratio.
Call Our Maryland Personal Injury Attorneys Today
For help if you were injured in an accident, call (410) 694-7291 for a free case review with Rice, Murtha & Psoras’ Baltimore personal injury attorneys.