Punitive Damages

Punitive Damages

Have you been injured by another person’s misconduct? If so, you’re probably interested in the damages you could be awarded in a settlement or jury verdict. Texas has two major classes of damages – compensatory and punitive.

Compensatory damages are designed to make the injured person whole again. They compensate the plaintiff for losses incurred by the defendant’s misconduct. 

Texas further divides compensatory damages into:

  • Economic, or special, damages. These compensate the plaintiff for direct expenses from the injury, like medical expenses and lost wages.
  • Non-economic, or general, damages. These are compensation for non-monetary losses, like pain and suffering, loss of consortium, and emotional distress.

The second class of damages is punitive damages.

What are Punitive Damages?

Economic Damages

Punitive damages also called exemplary damages in Texas, are designed to punish the defendant for their misconduct. They are also meant to deter others from engaging in the same conduct.

Texas law explains them this way:

  • “Any damages awarded as a penalty or by way of punishment but not for compensatory purposes.”
  • “They may be awarded … if the [plaintiff] proves … that the harm … results from fraud; malice; or gross negligence.”
  • “Malice means a specific intent by the defendant to cause substantial injury or harm to the [plaintiff].”

These damages are designed to punish the defendant rather than compensate the plaintiff. That’s why ordinary negligence on behalf of the defendant is not enough. Punitive damages punish the defendant when their conduct amounts to fraud, malice, or gross negligence.

Burden of Proof

In most personal injury cases, the plaintiff is required to prove their claims by a preponderance of the evidence. This means that their version of the facts is “more likely than not” the truth. However, for punitive damages, a clear and convincing evidence burden of proof is required. This standard of proof is greater than the preponderance of the evidence standard.

Texas law defines it as the degree of proof that will lead a jury to have “a firm belief or conviction as to the truth” of the plaintiff’s allegations,

In other words, to prove punitive damages, the plaintiff faces two additional requirements beyond a regular personal injury law: more than negligent conduct and a higher burden of proof.

What Are the Limits, or Caps, on Punitive Damages in Texas?

The damages a plaintiff can recover for punitive damages may not exceed the greater of:

  • Twice the value of economic damages awarded by the jury, plus an amount equal to the non-economic damages found by a jury, not to exceed $750,000; or
  • $200,000.

For example, if the jury awards $50,000 in economic damages and $250,000 in non-economic damages, the limit on punitive damages would be $350,000 (because it is greater than $200,000).

There are exceptions to these limitations. They generally do not apply in actions against a defendant whose conduct was felonious. 

This includes the following:

  • Murder
  • Aggravated kidnapping
  • Aggravated assault
  • Sexual assault
  • Trafficking of persons.

The exception also applies when the injury occurred, in some circumstances, while the defendant was engaged in illicit drug manufacturing.

Are Punitive Damages Constitutional?

punitive damages award

From time to time, a defendant challenges the constitutionality of a punitive damages award.

The Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause prohibits grossly excessive or arbitrary punishments against a defendant. 

A court examines the constitutionality of punitive damages by considering three factors:

“(1) the degree of reprehensibility of the defendant’s misconduct, (2) the disparity between the actual or potential harm suffered by the plaintiff and the size of the award, and (3) the difference between the award and the civil penalties authorized or imposed in comparable cases.”

For example, in Lambert v. Lambert, a Texas appellate court illustrates this analysis. In this case, Christi Lambert sued her ex-husband Mark Lambert for intentional infliction of emotional distress and conversion after he allegedly broke into her house. He allegedly stole some items and left notes for her. 

The case went to trial before a judge, with no jury. The judge awarded Christi $131,132.57 in compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages. Mark appealed on several grounds, including the unconstitutionality of the punitive damages award.

The appellate court examined the three factors determining the constitutionality of the amount of punitive damages awarded.

For the first factor, the reprehensibility of conduct, the court considered it at length.

 It asked the following questions:

  • Was the harm physical or merely economic?
  • Did the conduct show a reckless disregard for the health and safety of others?
  • Was the victim financially vulnerable?
  • Did the conduct involve repeated actions, or was it an isolated incident?
  • Was the conduct intentional or a mere accident?

The court focused on the fact that Mark’s conduct was intentional. It concluded it was sufficiently reprehensible to justify the $100,000 punitive damages award.

The second factor involves the disparity of punitive damages to compensatory damages. Here, the court noted that the ratio of punitive damages to compensatory damages was actually less than one, so it found in favor of Christi.

For the third factor, which is the difference between the award and civil penalties authorized by law, the court noted that the $100,000 was less than the $200,000 (or more) limit imposed by Texas’ statutory law. It, too, found this to favor Christi.

Therefore, based on its application of the three factors, the court held the trial court’s award of $100,000 to be constitutional.

Contact an Attorney to Discuss Punitive Damages

Punitive damages can be more difficult to prove than compensatory damages. They require a higher burden of proof and reckless conduct on the part of the defendant. They are also subject to statutory limits and constitutional challenges. However, our lawyers at Stephens Law Firm, PLLC are experts at navigating this minefield and giving you the best chance to recover punitive damages. Call (817) 420-7000 or contact our law office in Fort Worth online to discuss your case.