Traditionally, in Pennsylvania, finding a party negligent in the cause of an accident was enough to award varying amounts of compensatory damages to personal injury victims, because careless actions result in varying degrees of severity. All negligence was assumed to be inadvertent, or “accidental.” Therefore a jury was free to award an amount that was commensurate with the case presented by the Pennsylvania injury attorney.
However, the Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court opened the door for injury attorneys to ask for damages beyond negligence in Hutchinson v. Luddy, a case where an employer allowed an employee to do harm despite knowing that it could happen.
Presumably this additional level of damage awarding has come into play because moral lines continue to be tested in all walks of life. It is only fitting to have in place a method to deter future conduct unfitting to society, and possibly even to deter others for embarking on similar behavior.
The method is called “Punitive Damages,” which are damages over and above standard “pain and suffering” damages. Punitives are intended to penalize defendants in injury cases for outrageous conduct that “shocks the conscience” of a reasonable person. They are also intended to deter individuals from repeating the conduct and to send a message to others not to engage in such conduct.
In PA, it is up to Pennsylvania injury attorneys to prove these types of damages to deter and punish wrongdoers.
As a Philadelphia car accident lawyer, if I can successfully prove that the defendant is liable for some misconduct, I must also prove a right to damages resulting from that misconduct. For example, a negligent driver is liable for driving recklessly. Any damages flowing from the liability of that behavior will depend on how much damage was done to my client’s car, the amount of any hospital bills, and the severity of the my client’s injuries. I must prove that the specific harm done to my client occurred as a result of the misconduct, a.k.a. negligence, of the defendant. The value of this harm is then subject a calculation of damages that we ask for.
Punitive damages, however, go beyond this scenario. The Supreme Court has held that a defendant has to have consciously disregarded a known risk to the plaintiff, either through their actions or inactions. If a defendant consiciously disregards a high risk of harm to others, and injuries result, punitive damages are in order. A driver who is under the influence of drugs or alcohol is a good example. Getting behind the wheel while under the influence is consciously disregarding a risk of injury to other drivers. Likewise, there are many cases where the at-fault driver was on his or her cell phone when a crash occurs. This is also a scenario where punitives are in order.
This kind of knowledge of the ‘wrong’ being done goes well beyond what is needed to establish liability for negligence. In fact, it is probably the last step away from finding criminal responsibility. The argument could be made that the line is actually blurred. A drunk driver can be convicted of vehicular manslaughter. The resultant punitive damage would be jail time. But that is criminal law, not civil law.
The difference between compensatory damages and punitive would appear to come down to the intent of the negligent party’s actions. The mere knowledge of facts that could present a high degree of risk to the plaintiff is not enough to prove punitive damages – the defendant would also need to have actually appreciated the risk and chosen to ignore it.
I am Philadelphia injury lawyer Jeffrey Harlan Penneys. If you have been involved in a personal injury in Pennsylvania contact me at 1-800-465-8795 (1-800-injury-law) for a free consultation.