If you have suffered a personal injury in Florida, an important part of the legal analysis involves determining whether punitive damages can be successfully added to the claim. For plaintiffs, doing so is very likely to increase the potential value of the claim.
Punitive damages are awarded to penalize defendants for intentional misconduct or gross negligence, per F.S. 768.72. The statute requires injury plaintiffs to prove with clear and convincing evidence that defendant had actual knowledge of the wrongfulness of conduct and the high probability that defendant’s conduct was so reckless or wanton in care that it amounted to a conscious disregard for or indifference to the life or safety of others.
Florida law limits punitive damages to either three times the amount of compensatory damages or up to $500,0000 – whichever is greater. The only exceptions would be if defendant’s conduct was especially egregious and motivated by unreasonable financial gain, in which case the limit is four times the amount of compensatory damages or $2 million.
The rules are different in each state, though almost all have limits on when punitive damages can be awarded and how much may be awarded.
Recently before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, plaintiff in Lompe v. Sunridge Partners LLC sought damages for toxic exposure to carbon monoxide due to malfunctioning of the furnace in her Wyoming apartment.
According to court records, plaintiff was a 20-year-old college student when she moved into the apartment in question in September 2010. About five months later, she was evacuated from her apartment and transported to a nearby hospital after a gas company alerted emergency crews to high levels of carbon monoxide emanating from the apartment.
Plaintiff was treated for acute carbon monoxide poisoning, and as a result, has suffered a number of various neurological conditions, including cognitive deficits, chronic headaches, sleep disturbances and emotional disorders. She continues to take a host of medications to control seizures, migraines, mood fluctuations and sleeping trouble.
She filed a personal injury lawsuit against the owner and property manager of the apartment. She alleged defendants failed in their duty of care to ensure the apartment was safe for inhabitants and their negligent actions caused her injuries.
Evidence presented revealed this was not the first time there had been a problem with carbon monoxide at the residence. Testimony indicated there had been at least four prior incidents at defendants’ apartments – three at the very same residence – that red-flagged problems with the HVAC system.
Plaintiff was only saved when an apartment complex worker arrived around 9:30 a.m. to deliver a lease renewal to another tenant and detected a strange odor. He called a gas technician who detected carbon monoxide. They both entered the apartment and took the unconscious woman out, called 911 and evacuated the apartment. It was later revealed most of the units did not have functioning carbon monoxide detectors.
At trial, jurors found both the owner and property manager were liable for negligence. They awarded plaintiff $3 million in compensatory damages and a total of $25.5 million in punitive damages. The owner was apportioned $3 million in punitive damages and the rest was apportioned to the property management company.
On appeal, defendants argued there had been insufficient evidence to submit the question of punitive damages to jurors and further, the amount of punitive damages was grossly excessive and in violation of the 14th Amendment clause on due process.
The federal appeals court reviewed and determined the award of punitive damages against the property owner should be vacated, as there was not enough evidence presented before trial that showed defendant was grossly negligent or had intentionally harmed tenants. As for the property management company, the court did find the punitive damage award excessive, reducing the total amount owed by that defendant from $22.5 million to $1.9 million. That meant plaintiff will receive a total of about $5 million, less attorney fees and court costs.
If you have been injured in Boca Raton, contact the Hollander Law Firm at (888) 751-7770 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.
Lompe v. Sunridge Partners LLC , April 1, 2016, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit
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Intern Injury Compensation a Thorny Legal Question, Jan. 23, 2016, Boca Raton Personal Injury Lawyer