How Are Damages Determined in a Personal Injury Case?
By Saunders Law Group on June 11, 2014
Many people wonder how much money a case is worth. While it is impossible to predict the exact sum a jury will award, understanding how damages are awarded helps bring a case’s value better into focus. To recover damages in a personal injury case in Florida, the Plaintiff must first prove the following: the Defendant owed a duty to the Plaintiff to use reasonable care, breached that duty, and, as a result, caused the Plaintiff’s injuries. The Plaintiff must also prove he or she has actual damages as a result of his or her injuries. Damages are not presumed in negligence cases (as opposed to intentional torts cases). These elements must be proven by the greater weight of the evidence, which means evidence that is more convincing compared to the other side’s evidence. (Some refer to this as “tipping the scales:” a Judge or jury needs to be convinced by 51% that the Plaintiff’s evidence was more persuasive).
If the jury concludes the Plaintiff has proven the elements stated above, it must then determine the actual amount of damages owing to the Plaintiff. Juries may award damages in Lakeland personal injury cases based on the following:
- Pain and suffering
- Disability or physical impairment
- Mental anguish
- Loss of capacity for the enjoyment of life (from the past or in the future)
Since there is no pre-determined or set sum of money assigned to the above factors, according to Florida Standard Jury Instructions 501.2, juries are instructed to award a sum that is fair and just based on the evidence presented.
Damages may also be awarded for:
- Medical expenses (obtained in the past or to be obtained in the future)
- Lost earnings
- Future lost earnings
- Spouse’s loss of consortium
These damages are classified as compensatory damages and are designed to compensate the Plaintiff for the harms he or she suffered.
A jury will modify its award of damages if it determines the Plaintiff is also responsible for his or her injuries that the Defendant caused. This concept is called comparative negligence, and luckily, in Florida, it does not bar a Plaintiff from recovery. In fact, Florida employs “pure comparative negligence,” which allows the Plaintiff to recover even if the Plaintiff is found to be 99% at fault. (Prior to 1973, under Florida’s old system, contributory fault barred a Plaintiff from recovery if the Plaintiff contributed in any way to his or her injuries. This principle applied no matter what percentage of responsibility was attributed to the Defendant for the Plaintiff’s injuries). Under this comparative negligence system, Plaintiff’s damages will be diminished according to his or her percentage of fault. (For example, if a Plaintiff is found to be 20% at fault, his recovery is reduced by 20%). Also, if multiple parties are liable for a Plaintiff’s injuries, a Defendant can further decrease his liability to the Plaintiff based on those persons’ comparative fault. Of course, a Plaintiff is also entitled to Judgment against each of parties who contribute to his or her injuries (on the basis of those persons’ percentage of fault).
In some cases, after determining the appropriate amount of compensatory damages, the jury may also award punitive damages. Punitive damages are not directly tied to the Plaintiff’s damages. Rather, they are designed to punish and deter the Defendant’s conduct – which the Plaintiff must prove was egregious or malicious - in order to ensure it does not happen again. However, punitive damages are only awarded in exceptional cases. Section 768.73, Florida Statutes sets several different caps the amount of punitive damages a jury can award depending on the case’s facts and circumstances. Usually the cap is three times the amount of compensatory damages awarded to each claimant, or $500,000.00. The rare exception to the cap exists only when the Judge or jury finds that the Defendant specifically intended to harm the Plaintiff at the time of the Plaintiff’s injury and that the Defendant’s conduct did, in fact, harm the Plaintiff. Otherwise, one of the caps on punitive damages applies. The Plaintiff must prove he or she is entitled to punitive damages by clear and convincing evidence, a higher burden of proof than the “greater weight of the evidence” discussed above. Once the jury determines the Plaintiff is entitled to punitive damages, the amount is determined by the greater weight of the evidence.
Remittitur and Additur
Judges in Florida also have the power to increase or decrease the damages a Plaintiff is awarded if it finds the award inadequate or excessive. The Judge must rely on certain criteria in determining whether the sum must be modified. If the party adversely affected by the Judge’s ruling objects, the court shall issue a new trial only on the issue of damages.
Contact one of our attorneys
Suffering from injuries due to someone else’s negligence is frustrating and painful in many ways. If you or a loved one has suffered an injury as a result of another’s negligence and have questions regarding damages to which you may be entitled, consult with our experienced attorneys who will thoroughly evaluate your case and help you recover what you deserve.
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