Punitive Damages

RAINN reports a person is sexually assaulted every 1.5 minutes in the U.S. Every 8 minutes, that person is a child. Although a small percentage of the perpetrators are criminally charged and an even smaller number convicted, victims can seek accountability in the civil justice system. Defendants may include not just the perpetrator, but other individuals or entities who had a duty to protect the victim and failed.

Punitive damages are often appropriate in civil sexual assault cases. The intent of punitive damages is to punish the defendant. These damages may be awarded pursuant to F.S. 768.72, in cases where the evidence shows defendant committed intentional misconduct or gross negligence. Although permission to seek punitive damages must be granted by the judge and is not especially common in Florida civil lawsuits, the circumstances surrounding many sexual assaults do involve gross negligence or intentional misconduct.

The Fort Lauderdale sexual assault attorneys at The Ansara Law Firm fight for victims of sexual violence, not only to help them obtain the monetary compensation to start over financially, but also to hold third parties accountable. These can include:

  • Churches
  • Schools
  • Sporting organizations
  • Government entities
  • Businesses
  • Landlords/ hotels/ innkeepers
  • Hospitals
  • Nursing homes

Of course, the physical and emotional trauma of sexual assault can never be quantified. The reality is no amount of money is going to grant you instant healing. Still, many victims feel these claims allow them a measure of justice, affirmation that they were not to blame and hopefully accountability that will protect more people from becoming victims.

What Exactly Are Punitive Damages?

“Damages” is a legal term that describes compensation that is awarded for one’s loss or injury that occurs through negligence or a deliberate act.

In civil sexual assault cases there are three basic types of damages that can be awarded: Special compensatory damages, general compensatory damages and punitive damages.

Special compensatory damages are granted for claims involving actual monetary losses suffered because of negligent or intentional misconduct. In a civil sexual assault case, these might include:

  • Medical expenses (past and future)
  • Loss of earnings
  • Loss of future earnings

General compensatory damages, meanwhile, are intended to compensate a person for non-monetary damages the victim incurred. These may be things like:

  • Pain and suffering
  • Mental anguish
  • Emotional distress
  • Loss of consortium/ companionship (filed by a spouse, parent, child, etc.)

Punitive damages , unlike the others, don’t compensate the victim for a specific loss, but rather are awarded to punish the defendant when the wrongful acts were especially egregious or reprehensible. They are intended also to serve as a deterrent to the defendant and others from engaging in similar conduct in the future. This often applies in civil sexual assault cases and can sometimes far exceed the amount to which one might be entitled in compensatory damages.

As mentioned earlier, punitive damages in Florida are limited to those cases that involve intentional misconduct or gross negligence.

  • “Intentional misconduct” means when a defendant had actual knowledge of the wrongfulness of the acts/ omissions, as well as the high probability that injury or damage to the plaintiff would result and that even despite that knowledge, defendant willfully pursued that course of conduct, causing injury to plaintiff.
  • “Gross negligence” refers to cases wherein defendant’s conduct was so reckless or wanting in care that it constitute a conscious disregard or indifference to the life, safety or rights of those exposed to that conduct. Employers can be held vicariously liable – and made to pay punitive damages – for the gross negligence of an employee when the employer actively and knowingly engaged in the conduct, knowingly condoned or consented to the conduct or the company’s gross negligence in some way contributed to plaintiff’s injury.

Further, the Florida Supreme Court held in the 1994 ruling in WR Grace & Co.-Conn. v. Waters, that punitive damages can be awarded when defendant’s conduct is fraudulent, malicious, deliberately violent or oppressive or committed with such gross negligence as to indicate a wanton disregard for the rights of others. In that same ruling, the court held that several lawsuits awarding punitive damages against a single defendant for the same course of conduct were appropriate (which is why we have seen punitive damage awards repeatedly lodged against organizations and institutions for concealment or failures to protect victims of sexual assault).

Federal courts also sometimes handle Florida civil sexual assault cases, such as the 2015 verdict favoring female farmworkers who were raped and sexually harassed at work, and then fired for objecting. Federal jurors in Miami awarded $17 million to the victims in that case – of which $15 million was for punitive damages. Individual perpetrators of sexual assault often cannot pay these sums, but the organizations who employed or shielded them or failed to protect victims often can.

Challenges in Obtaining Punitive Damages

To pursue a claim for punitive damages, plaintiffs must first obtain consent from the judge. Plaintiff must present evidence at a pre-trial hearing that there is a reasonable basis for recovery of punitive damages from defendant.

The Waters case established a new trial precedent for litigating punitive damages in Florida courtrooms. Defendants in cases where plaintiff seeks punitive damages can file a motion to bifurcate (separate) the determination of the amount of punitive damages from the remaining issues at trial. The court hears issues at trial pertaining to liability, compensatory damages and liability for punitive damages, but the actual amount is typically saved for later. If the jury finds the defendant liable for punitive damages, then a “mini-trial” is held to ascertain the amount.

Verdicts for large punitive damages can be reduced through a defendant’s motion to the judge or via an appeal. It is important to have an experienced trial attorney working hard to fight for maximum compensation and accountability in your civil sexual assault claim at every step in the process.

Contact The Ansara Law Firm for more information about pursuing a civil claim for damages after nursing home sexual assault or abuse. Call us at (954) 761-3641 for a free case review.

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