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When Can a Tennessee Plaintiff Get Punitive Damages in a Personal Injury Case?

There are several categories of damages an injured plaintiff can claim in a lawsuit. Special damages refer to economic losses, such as medical bills and lost income while the plaintiff was unable to work. General damages compensate individuals for real but difficult-to-quantify losses related to the victim’s quality of life. Pain and suffering, mental anguish, and loss of consortium are terms that refer to a plaintiff’s general damages. Punitive damages are different; they are not meant to compensate the victim, but to punish a wrongdoer. For that reason, punitive damages are only available in limited cases.

To assert a claim for punitive damages in Tennessee, a plaintiff must be prepared to prove that a defendant was worse than simply careless — that his actions exceeded negligence. The law recognizes four specific modes of action:

  • Intentional — The defendant had a conscious desire to commit the injury-inflicting act or to cause the injury. A plaintiff could ask for punitive damages in the case of an unprovoked assault.
  • Fraudulent — The defendant deliberately misrepresented a material fact to give the plaintiff a false impression, and the plaintiff was injured because he acted in reliance on that false impression. Suppose a car salesman lied about the recent maintenance of a car’s brakes to make a sale, and the buyer, having bought the car because he’d been assured it was safe, was unable to stop at a red light. Punitive damages might be appropriate.
  • Malicious — The defendant acted with ill-will, hatred or spite toward the plaintiff. If the defendant had been harassing the plaintiff because of bad feelings toward the plaintiff as an individual or as a member of a particular class of people, and the harassment caused injury, punitive damages might be appropriate.
  • Reckless — The defendant acts with conscious disregard for a substantial risk of injury that his behavior creates. You might immediately think of reckless driving leading to an accident. However, in practice, many drivers are cited for reckless driving at the scene of an accident, but that is rarely the basis for an award of punitive damages. However, a company that is reckless in distributing a product that management knows is unreasonably dangerous could expect to pay punitive damages.

There are other reasons why punitive damages are rare in personal injury cases. Plaintiffs must prove one of the four mental states by clear and convincing evidence. This is a higher standard than the preponderance of evidence necessary to prove negligence, but not quite as high as the standard for criminal cases, which is beyond a reasonable doubt. The court also considers a defendant’s ability to pay punitive damages in setting the amount. Individual plaintiffs are usually hit hard enough by an order to pay special and general damages, so a punitive damage award might amount to little or nothing. Corporations, on the other hand, have deeper pockets, so plaintiffs are more likely to pursue punitive damages in those cases.  Yet, even for these defendants, Tennessee law caps punitive damages at $500,000 or twice the value of compensatory damages, whichever is greater.

If you have suffered a serious personal injury, talk to a knowledgeable attorney about how to recover damages.  Call Massengill, Caldwell & Coughlin, P.C. today at 423-797-6022 to schedule your free initial consultation, or contact us online.

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