Punitive damages, sometimes referred to as exemplary damages, are not intended to compensate a victim for harm sustained because of an injury. Instead, they are typically awarded for two very specific reasons:
- To punish someone for outrageous behavior involving malice, willful or wanton conduct, or fraud
- To deter him and others from similar conduct in the future
Are Punitive Damages Available in Colorado?
Yes and no.
In Colorado, a plaintiff cannot ask for punitive damages when he or she files a lawsuit. A plaintiff is required to wait until after clear and convincing evidence has been gathered to show the court that punitive damages should be considered.
According to Colorado law, punitive damages cannot amount to more than the amount of actual damages. A court may also decide to disallow punitive damages, even after a jury finds them to be justified, if the court believes that deterrence can be achieved without a punitive damage award. Punitive damages may not be awarded in Colorado for breaches of contracts, except in cases involving specific contracts where a special relationship exists between the parties or special circumstances are involved, such as an insurance contract.
What Kind of Conduct Warrants Punitive Damages?
In Colorado, a victim must prove that the person or party responsible for their injuries caused them harm as a direct result of committing an act of fraud, malice, or willful and wanton conduct:
- Fraud — Intentional deception made for personal gain or to intentionally damage another person. Fraud can be committed through the misrepresentation of a fact, either by words or conduct, untrue or misleading allegations, or by intentionally covering up something that should have been disclosed.
- Malice — Committing a wrongful act intentionally to cause harm to someone else without just reason or excuse. Legal malice focuses on the reckless disregard of the law and the rights of others.
- Willful or Wanton Conduct — Colorado law defines willful or wanton conduct as “conduct purposefully committed which the actor must have realized as dangerous, done heedlessly and recklessly, without regard to consequences, or of the rights and safety of others, particularly the plaintiff.”
Punitive Damages and Personal Injury
Punitive damages are not often awarded in personal injury cases, but an example of an auto accident case that might result in a punitive damage award is drunk driving. Any reasonable person should know that driving under the influence is a negligent, dangerous, and illegal act that constitutes willful and wanton conduct that places others on the roadway in serious danger.
Criticisms of Punitive Damages
Those who do not support punitive damages believe that large monetary awards are usually unfair, unreasonable, and generally do not benefit society. Critics say that the vague standards used to determine whether or not punitive damages are appropriate and the methods used to calculate the awards are often based upon bias, passion, and prejudice rather than on the law itself.
Many states, including Colorado, recognize these criticisms and have developed a procedure to require that the trial court assess the sufficiency of the evidence and instruct the jury fully before allowing an award for punitive damages. However, there are times when punitive damages are appropriate, and accident attorneys should make victims aware that they exist as a means to obtain further compensation.
Image by Miguel Mendoza.