When can a person recover punitive damages in an injury claim?

Punitive damages (also known as exemplary damages) are money damages awarded not to compensate the injured person but for the purpose of punishing the person and/or company that caused the injury.  For example: if a highly intoxicated driver ran a red light and caused a motor vehicle collision that resulted in the other driver sustaining a broken arm, the jury could consider awarding punitive damages against the drunk driver to punish the drunk driver for her conduct. Punitive damages awarded would go to the injured person. The purpose of the punitive damages though is not to compensate, but to punish.

The standard for recovering punitive damages in Texas is set out in Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code Section 41.003.  Exemplary damages can only be awarded if the claimant (i.e. the injured person in an injury claim) proves by clear and convincing evidence that the harm they suffered results from: (1) fraud; (2) malice; or (3) gross negligence.

“Clear and convincing” is a higher burden of proof than usually applies in a civil case.  Usually the burden of proof for a civil claim for money damages is “preponderance of the evidence.”  Put another way, to recover punitive damages the injured person is held to a higher standard of proof than if they were suing for, for example, ordinary negligence.

It is also a requirement in Texas that a jury must be unanimous in their decision to award punitive damages.  That means in civil district court, 12 of 12 jurors must all agree to award punitive damages (or in county court at law, 6 of 6 jurors must agree).  To award punitive damages, the jury has to be in complete agreement: (a) to award punitive damages in the first place: and (b) on the amount of punitive damages they will award.

It is not always clear what type of conduct rises to the level of gross negligence that a jury would realistically award punitive damages for.  In cases where a drunk driver causes another motorist injury, attorneys almost always seek punitive damages when filing suit for the injured person and there is a high probability a jury would consider awarding punitive damages.  In a case where someone was texting while driving however, a jury may not be so ready to agree that such conduct constitutes gross negligence.

Insurance policies sometimes specifically exclude coverage for gross negligence, meaning if a jury were to awarded punitive damages against their insured for gross negligence, the insurance company would not have to pay those damages.

In our 20-year history Smith & Hassler has represented many injured individuals and their family members in injury claims against drunk drivers.  While we cannot guarantee specific results, we can guarantee our best efforts to make sure clients are fully compensated for all damages available under Texas law, including punitive damages when such occasions arise.