What are punitive damages?
Minneapolis personal injury lawyer Bill Tilton defines punitive damages.
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Punitive damages are damages that you get for purposes of making the errant party smart in two senses of the word – smart so they don’t do it again and smart so it hurts. Punitive damages are only awarded when somebody has acted very egregiously. There has to be clear and convincing evidence that they acted with knowing or reckless disregard for the rights or safety of others.
Only in a few times in medical malpractice cases have I thought that we had evidence that that was – that we reached that threshold. Most of the time, when people are hurt by an errant nurse or doctor, it’s simply because that nurse or doctor on that day just wasn’t operating at full speed and somebody else didn’t back ’em up, ’cause usually there’s backups in that profession.
On rare occasions, we have brought motions to add a count for punitive damages. In Minnesota, you can’t just automatically sue for punitive damage. You have to develop your facts and then take it to the judge to see whether the judge thinks you have enough evidence to prove that you can make such a claim. Only a couple of times in 37 years have I brought that kind of a motion, and every time I’ve done that – I think 3 or 4 times – every time I’ve done that, the cases settled while the punitive damage motion was pending in front of the judge. So it’s reserved for examples of very egregious behavior. It doesn’t happen often, and that’s the way it should be.