Colorado Punitive Damages: The Basics of Punitive Damages and What You Should Know

In some civil lawsuits, the plaintiff can ask for something called punitive damages. If a defendant is found guilty of committing a harmful act, a plaintiff may be able to receive additional compensation in the form of punitive damages. They’re intended to punish the wrongdoer and serve as an additional disincentive against engaging in similar misconduct in the future. Punitive damages are sometimes referred to as “exemplary” or “vindictive” damages, but they all refer to the same thing: an amount of money that a judge will award if it’s proven that the defendant acted with malicious intent or gross negligence. Read on for more information about punitive damages in general and Colorado punitive damages laws in particular.

What is a Punitive Damages Lawsuit?

A punitive damages lawsuit is one where the plaintiff is asking the court to “punish” the defendant by awarding them an additional amount of money above and beyond the actual damages they suffered as a result of the defendant’s harmful act. Essentially, you’re asking the court to punish the defendant for their wrongdoing. You can file a punitive damages lawsuit if the defendant’s harmful act was intentional or grossly negligent – that is if it was done with reckless disregard for the safety of others. Being awarded punitive damages isn’t automatic. The defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty and has the right to challenge a punitive damages award by arguing that the plaintiff doesn’t deserve it. But if a judge decides that the defendant has been proven guilty and that punitive damages are warranted, they can increase the amount of the award beyond the amount of actual damages the plaintiff suffered.

When Can You Receive Punitive Damages?

To be eligible for punitive damages, you must have a valid claim for actual damages. You can only receive punitive damages if you prove to the court that the defendant acted with malice, oppression, or gross negligence. Malice – Malice is defined as doing something out of spite or ill will toward another person. In the context of a lawsuit, malice can be shown if the defendant acted with the intent to cause harm. Oppression – Oppression is defined as unjustly treating someone harshly, cruelly, or unfairly. In the context of a lawsuit, oppression can be shown if the defendant acted with a callous and indifferent disregard for the plaintiff’s interests. Gross negligence – Gross negligence is defined as reckless disregard for the safety of others. In the context of a lawsuit, gross negligence can be shown if the defendant knew that their actions posed a risk of harm to the plaintiff and still chose to take those actions anyway.

How Much Are Colorado Punitive Damages?

Colorado has a “sliding scale” for calculating punitive damages. The judge will look at the facts of the case and decide how much the plaintiff is entitled to based on the degree of wrongdoing demonstrated by the defendant.  Pursuant to C.R.S. 13-21-102, Colorado law generally limits punitive damages such that they may not exceed a party’s “actual” or compensatory damages;  The maximum amount of punitive damages in Colorado is 3 times If the judge decides that (1) the defendant has continued the behavior or repeated the action in a willful and wanton manner, either against the plaintiff or another person or persons, during the time the case is occurring; or (2) the defendant has acted in a willful and wanton manner during the pendency of the action in a manner that has further aggravated the damages of the plaintiff when the defendant knew or should have known such action would produce aggravation.

Why Should I Pursue Punitive Damages?

As discussed above, punitive damages are intended to punish the wrongdoer and serve as an additional disincentive against engaging in similar misconduct in the future. Some examples of conduct that could result in a punitive damages award include causing an injury through gross negligence or fraud, polluting and contaminating the environment, or engaging in racial discrimination or sexual harassment. Punitive damages are meant to send a message to wrongdoers that their behavior is unacceptable and that they have to pay a price for their actions. Some people frame punitive damages as “getting even” with the defendant, but this is a mischaracterization. You’re not “getting even” with a defendant by asking for punitive damages. You’re asking the court to hold the defendant accountable for their actions by imposing an additional penalty.

Why You Should Be Careful With Punitive Damaging Awards

While it’s important to hold wrongdoers accountable for their actions through punitive damages, it’s also important to be wary of the consequences.  Because a defendant has the right to challenge a punitive damages award, or even file bankruptcy, there is always a chance that it may be reduced or even thrown out altogether by a judge. If a judge reduces or dismisses a punitive damages award, the plaintiff will be left without any additional compensation for their injuries.

 The limitation On Punitive Damages As Illustrated in Current Events: Johnny Depp

This limitation on damages is illustrated in recent events. In early 2018, Johnny Depp filed a lawsuit against Amber Heard after she wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post in which she hinted at prior allegations of physical abuse. The jury has ruled that Depp defamed Heard by rebuffing her allegations. The jury awarded Depp $10 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages. This was a tremendous victory for Johnny Depp’s attorney, Camille Vasquez. However, Judge Penney Azcarate reduced it to $350,000 in accordance with Virginia law.  This reduction had many viewers asking why the verdict was reduced.  Under Virginia law, the mandatory reduction is statutory.

Under Virginia law, § 8.01-38.1 (Limitation on recovery of punitive damages) In any action accruing on or after July 1, 1988, including an action for medical malpractice under Chapter 21.1 (§ 8.01-581.1 et seq.), the total amount awarded for punitive damages against all defendants found to be liable shall be determined by the trier of fact. In no event shall the total amount awarded for punitive damages exceed $350,000. The jury shall not be advised of the limitation prescribed by this section. However, if a jury returns a verdict for punitive damages in excess of the maximum amount specified in this section, the judge shall reduce the award and enter judgment for such damages in the maximum amount provided by this section.

Bottom Line

While punitive damages are important in holding wrongdoers accountable, it’s important to be wary of the consequences. Depending on the facts of the case, a judge could significantly reduce or even dismiss a punitive damages award. That means that while the plaintiff may be entitled to additional compensation, they may end up receiving nothing at all. With that in mind, it’s important that you work with an experienced Colorado personal injury attorney who can help you navigate the process of pursuing punitive damages.