Punitive Damages (in Texas) Explained

Punitive damages texas

In this article, we explain what punitive damages are in Texas. Then we discuss how punitive damages in Texas are not the same as other types of personal injury damages.

If you’re ready to learn what exactly exemplary damages are, when they can be awarded and when they do not apply, continue reading.

What is Punitive Damage?

As every board certified personal injury trial lawyer knows, there are times when the intent behind a civil offense is more than mere carelessness and borders on criminal behavior. It is possible there may have been an awareness of the possibility of injury and a conscious decision to put others at risk for harm.

Punitive damages are awarded for more significant wrongdoing.

Punitive damages are a type of exemplary damages. Exemplary damages are not awarded to compensate the person injured. Punitive damages are intended to punish a wrongdoer and deter similar behavior in the future. The injured person receives the benefit of a punitive damages award, but the intention is to teach the wrongdoer a lesson.  Exemplary damages can only be awarded if there is an award of compensatory damages.

Punitive damages are a type of exemplary damages intended to punish a wrongdoer and deter similar behavior in the future.

Insurance policies may not provide coverage for punitive damages. Even if insurance coverage is not excluded, public policy may still prohibit the use of insurance to pay punitive damage awards.

The chapter on damages in the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code proclaims that exemplary damages may only be awarded if specific mental states can be proven by the claimant. Punitive damages may be awarded if the claimed harm can be proven to be the result of one of the following:

  • Fraud
  • Malice
  • Gross Negligence

Fraud

The kind of fraud that can result in punitive damages involves a willful intent to deceive. Proving deception occurred and caused harm without proving the intent to cause the deception does not support a punitive damages award.

Malice

Malice is a specific intent to cause harm to the person injured. Malice is more than a general disregard for the safety of others. Malice is more directed and personal.

Gross Negligence

Gross negligence is an act or failure to act involving an extreme degree of risk for harming others. Actions or inactions that involve an extreme degree of risk create more than a possibility of serious injury. Serious injury must be commonly understood as the likely result.

In addition to proving the nature of the risk, a claimant must also prove that the wrongdoer fully appreciated how serious the risk was and consciously chose to engage in the behavior anyway.

The Texas Supreme Court recently addressed a gross negligence claim arising from an automobile accident. The defendant driver was a high school student who hit the plaintiff pedestrian as he turned right from a parking lot onto the street. There was evidence the driver had been going too fast in the parking lot and only slowed briefly before turning onto the street. The driver admitted to only looking to the left before pulling out and did not see the plaintiff approaching from the right.

In overturning the appellate court’s finding of gross negligence, the high court found that while the defendant’s driving behavior was certainly thoughtless, careless, and risky (ordinary negligence), it did not rise to the extreme degree of risk necessary for gross negligence. The possibility of injury existed, but a reasonable person would not have anticipated injury was likely to occur as a result of the driver’s conduct.

Proof Necessary to Justify a Punitive Damages Award in Texas

A claimant requesting an award of punitive damages must prove the necessary elements by clear and convincing evidence. Evidence that is clear and convincing establishes a firm belief or conviction as to the truth of the allegations being made.

In cases before a jury, the jury must unanimously agree that there should be liability for punitive damages and what the amount of the damages should be.

Evidence Considered When Determining the Amount of Punitive Damages

The evidence that is relevant to deciding the amount of punitive damages to award includes:

  • The nature of the wrong
  • The character of the conduct
  • How much blame the wrongdoer deserves
  • The situation and sensibilities of the people involved
  • How the conduct offends the public’s sense of justice and propriety
  • Net worth of the wrongdoer

Texas Statutory Limitations on Punitive Damage Awards

Punitive damages are intended to punish a person or entity for doing wrong and send a message to deter others from engaging in similar conduct. Juries have discretion when determining the amount of punitive damages and awards can be many times greater than the amount of compensatory damages.

This has led a few states to prohibit punitive damages in personal injury claims and others to limit the amounts that can be awarded. In Texas, exemplary damages are limited to the greater of:

  • Double the amount of economic damages plus non-economic damages up to $750,000, or
  • $200,000

Members of the jury are not allowed to know there are statutory limitations on punitive damages when they determine an award.

When The Punitive Damages Cap Does Not Apply

The limits on punitive damages do not apply when the claimed conduct is also a felony. And they may not apply when the wrongdoer has ‘done something horrible’ that does not meet the definition of a felony but is nonetheless shocking to the conscience.

The Texas Tribune reported on a case involving the parents of a student killed in the Sandy Hook shooting versus conspiracy theorist Alex Jones who claimed the shooting was a hoax. A Texas district court judge chose to enforce the jury’s $45.2 million award of punitive damages instead of following the statute and limiting the award using the $4.1 million award of compensatory damages.

The district court’s decision is being appealed, and none of the punitive damages have been paid yet, so it remains to be seen if the law will allow for exceptions to the statutory limitations on punitive damage awards.

Find Out If You’re Entitled to Punitive Damages

An attorney experienced in obtaining punitive damage awards can evaluate your claim and determine if exemplary damages are appropriate. To learn more about your legal options, schedule a free consultation with Dax F. Garza, P.C.

Schedule your FREE Case
Consultation

GET A FREE CONSULTATION 713.522.3000