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What are Punitive Damages in a Personal Injury Case?

What are Punitive Damages in a Personal Injury Case?

When a person sustains a serious injury in New Mexico, they will often file a civil lawsuit against the liable party. In that lawsuit, the injured plaintiff will seek damages from the defendant. As you may know, personal injury lawsuits are civil lawsuits, which means that the plaintiff is not asking for the court to order criminal consequences for the defendant. Instead, the plaintiff asks the court to find the defendant responsible or liable for the plaintiff’s injuries and to award monetary damages. In most personal injury lawsuits, a plaintiff will seek compensatory damages. In general, compensatory damages are intended to provide a plaintiff with compensation for their losses. Compensatory damages take two different forms: economic damages (which compensate for direct financial losses) and non-economic damages (which compensate for subjective losses like the plaintiff’s pain and suffering).

In addition to compensatory damages, there are some personal injury cases in which a plaintiff may also seek punitive damages. What are punitive damages, and when are they relevant to a Santa Fe personal injury case?

Learning More About Punitive Damages

Punitive damages are different from compensatory damages because they are punitive in nature. Whereas compensatory damages are intended to compensate a plaintiff for losses, punitive damages are designed to punish a defendant for particularly harmful actions and to deter similar behavior in the future. According to New Mexico’s civil jury instructions, punitive damages “are awarded for the limited purposes of punishment and to deter others from the commission of like offenses.”

For a court to award punitive damages, the plaintiff first must seek this type of damages in their personal injury lawsuit. Then, the court must determine that the defendant’s conduct was “malicious, willful, reckless, wanton, fraudulent, or in bad faith.” It is up to the plaintiff to prove that the defendant’s conduct falls into one of these categories. To be clear, ordinary negligence is not enough for punitive damages to be awarded. Accordingly, in a case where a defendant’s general careless behavior caused the plaintiff’s injuries, it is unlikely that punitive damages will be awarded. The definitions for malicious, willful, reckless, and wanton conduct are as follows, according to the civil jury instructions:

  • “Malicious conduct is the intentional doing of a wrongful act with knowledge that the act was wrongful”;
  • “Willful conduct is the intentional doing of an act with knowledge that harm may result”;
  • “Reckless conduct is the intentional doing of an act with utter indifference to the consequences”; and
  • “Wanton conduct is the doing of an act with utter indifference to or conscious disregard for a person’s rights or safety.”

Punitive damages are not commonly awarded in personal injury lawsuits, but they may be appropriate in particular personal injury cases. You should seek advice from a New Mexico personal injury attorney about whether you could be eligible to seek punitive damages in your lawsuit.

Contact a Santa Fe Personal Injury Lawyer

Do you have questions about seeking punitive damages in your lawsuit, or do you have questions about seeking damages more generally? One of our experienced Santa Fe personal injury lawyers can talk with you today about your circumstances and your claim. Contact Slate Stern Law to learn more about how we can help you.