There are two types of damages in most civil lawsuits: compensatory damages and punitive damages. Compensatory damages are intended to compensate the injured person (and/or their family) for the loss, injury, or harm suffered as a result of another’s actions or inactions. Punitive damages are meant to punish and deter others from acting in a similar manner as the underling conduct that caused the accident.
Punitive damages have been described as a quasi-criminal punishment. For example, if a person wildly fires a gun into a crowd and, by sheer chance, no one is injured and the only damage done is to a $10 pair of glasses, a substantial punitive damage award could be appropriate to punish the wrongdoer and discourage the wrongdoer and others from committing future bad acts.
Punitive Damages in West Virginia
In 2015, the West Virginia Legislature altered West Virginia’s punitive damages statute (W. Va. Code § 55-7-29).
The baseline test for punitive damages is if the defendant’s conduct that caused the injury or harm was carried out with either:
- Actual malice or
- A conscious, reckless, and outrageous indifference to the health, safety, and welfare of others
The amount of punitive damages awarded by a jury may not exceed four times the amount of compensatory damages or Five Hundred Thousand Dollars ($500,000.00), whichever is greater. For example, if a jury were to award Two Hundred Fifty Thousand Dollars ($250,000.00) in compensatory damages, the jury’s award for punitive damages cannot exceed One Million Dollars ($1,000,000.00). Conversely, another example, if a jury were to award Thirty Thousand Dollars (30,000.00) in compensatory damages, the jury’s award for punitive damages cannot exceed Five Hundred Thousand Dollars ($500,000.00). In situations where someone’s life is lost, if a jury awards Ten Million Dollars ($10,000,000.00) in compensatory damages; the at fault party faces up to Forty Million Dollars (40,000,000.00) of punitive damage exposure. In this limited example, the punitive damage award should be intended to send a message that such egregious conduct will not be tolerated. A Forty Million Dollar ($40,000,000.00) punitive damage award is likely to deter that company or other companies from engaging in the same type of conduct that justified the punitive damage award.
One Trial or Two?
In West Virginia, a trial to determine an amount of compensatory damages, if any, and an amount of punitive damages, if any, may be separated if the defendant request a separation.
If the defendant requests the compensatory damage portion be separated from the punitive damage portion, then the first part of a trial allows a jury to determine:
- Who is responsible for causing the plaintiff’s harm, if anyone?
- The percentage, out of 100%, of each person’s fault that caused the plaintiff harm.
- The amount of compensatory damage to award the plaintiff, if any.
If, after concluding the first part of the trial, the jury determines that a defendant shall pay compensatory damages, then the judge must determine if there is sufficient evidence for the jury to consider punitive damages. However, the judge does not have to allow a jury to consider awarding punitive damages.
If, after reviewing the evidence, the judge determines that enough evidence exists to proceed to the punitive damage portion of the trial, then the same jury will be asked to determine:
- If the defendant acted with actual malice towards the plaintiff or
- If the defendant acted with a conscious, reckless, and outrageous indifference to the health, safety, and welfare of others.
If a jury determines that the evidence supports a finding that the defendant acted with actual malice or conscious, reckless, and outrageous indifference to the health, safety and welfare of others, then—and only then—may the jury award punitive damages.
Our Firm Can Help
The ins and outs of punitive damage law in West Virginia may seem confusing at first, but rest assured that a trusted legal advocate at Shaffer Madia Law understands and can explain how it works in your particular case.Contact Shaffer Madia Law today at (304) 244-4433 to schedule a free consultation with a Morgantown personal injury attorney and learn how we can help you and your family obtain the justice you deserve.