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Punitive Damages in a Personal Injury Case

Seth Harris

Last modified on August 10, 2023

Punitive Damages in a New York Personal Injury Case

The New York Courts typically don’t care about punishing defendants in civil lawsuits. Criminal cases focus on punishments. The civil court system concerns itself more with compensating accident victims for injuries and losses. However, state law will allow a civil court to take punitive action against a defendant whose careless or egregious behavior causes someone’s injury or death. Instead of imposing fines and imprisonment, the court might award the plaintiff punitive damages as a punishment against the defendant.

Punitive damages are rare in personal injury cases. However, they are available under specific circumstances. You should consult an experienced personal injury attorney and consider seeking punitive damages if they apply to your situation.

What Are Punitive Damages?

Punitive damages aren’t financial compensation for an accident victim. They are meant to punish the defendant for willful or wanton actions, recklessness, negligence, a conscious disregard for the rights of others, or reckless conduct amounting to a disregard for others’ rights. Punishment makes sense if the defendant’s actions are so morally reprehensible or outrageous that monetary compensation for the victim’s losses isn’t enough. The court must punish the defendant and set a precedent to deter similar misconduct in the future.

How Are They Calculated in New York?

Determining whether the defendant acted with gross negligence is one possible method to determine whether the court should award punitive damages to the plaintiff. Gross negligence differs from negligence. Gross negligence involves a conscious disregard or indifference to others’ rights, safety, or life. Negligence is someone’s failure to act reasonably to avoid harming someone else.

Typically, the jury in a civil lawsuit determines the amount of punitive damages to award to the plaintiff. They might consider factors such as:

  • The severity of the plaintiff’s injuries
  • The circumstances of the defendant’s egregious actions or gross negligence
  • The extent of the plaintiff’s injuries related to the defendant’s actions
  • A reasonable amount of money to deter the defendant from committing similar acts again

The jury will also consider the defendant’s financial situation while calculating an award. However, exceeding ten times the amount of compensatory losses is often more than necessary. Most courts deem an amount over that limit as excessive.

Although New York doesn’t cap punitive damages at a specific amount, the United States Supreme Court suggests that punitive damages should not be too disproportionate to the plaintiff’s actual damages, or the award could be unconstitutional. In New York, an award of punitive damages seldom exceeds ten times the amount of compensatory losses. If a jury calculates more than that, the judge will likely reduce the financial award to a more suitable number.

When Are Punitive Damages Awarded?

There is no one size fits all rule to awarding punitive damages in a personal injury case. Sometimes, a specific statute authorizes punitive damages for plaintiffs injured under various circumstances. The facts of the case might cause the court to decide punitive damages are necessary to punish the defendant.

The law regarding punitive damages allows courts to grant a monetary award to a plaintiff if the defendant engages in immoral, egregious, or extreme conduct. That means their willful indifference, recklessness, or negligence is so severe that it justifies punitive action.

Common examples of conduct that can warrant punitive damages include:

  • A driver traveling at excessive speeds causes a catastrophic accident with a motorcycle, car, or truck
  • A large corporation that knowingly supplies the public with a defective or dangerous product that causes injuries or death to a significant number of consumers
  • A drunk motorist running a red light and striking a pedestrian with their vehicle
  • Nursing home staff who willfully ignores a resident’s request for assistance walking to the bathroom
  • A defendant who engages in criminal activity such as theft, robbery, or sexual assault that results in the plaintiff’s injury and warrants a civil case

Are Punitive Damages Taxable?

Punitive damages don’t compensate the plaintiff for financial or noneconomic losses, such as medical bills and pain and suffering. Since they’re separate from the monetary compensation given during an injury claim or lawsuit, they are subject to taxation.

Hurt in an Accident? Contact Us Now

The courts might be reluctant to allow an injured accident victim to recover punitive damages in a personal injury lawsuit. The requirements for proving a defendant’s gross negligence or egregious actions are challenging. The standard is high, and meeting it requires help from an experienced personal injury attorney. Harris Keenan & Goldfarb has over 80 years of combined legal experience providing effective representation for our clients. You can count on us to fight for you. Call [phone-number linked=true] for a consultation today if you sustained injuries in an accident due to someone else’s gross negligence, willful or wanton conduct, or a conscious disregard for others’ rights.

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Our track record showcases over $500 million won for our clients. Each victory underlines our commitment to justice and client care. Explore our impact, case by case.



A Brooklyn jury awarded Mr. Vargas $17.5 million for the City of New York’s violation of his civil rights for failing to provide him medical care while in custody. The jury found that the police officers involved failed to provide the necessary medical treatment and awarded $17.5 million to Mr. Vargas.



Harris Keenan & Goldfarb partners Seth Harris and Sheri Holland obtained a $4,730,398.00 jury verdict on behalf of our client who tripped and fell at a private apartment building in the Bronx, suffering a broken foot that developed a very painful, permanent neurological condition called Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (“RSD”).



A Bronx jury awarded John Doe over $12 million for an accident on a construction site. John Doe was working when a piece of scaffold weighing 35 pounds fell, striking John Doe in the lower back. John Doe suffered a herniated disc requiring surgical removal of a portion of the disc and permanent nerve damage.



A Bronx jury awarded $10.5 million to the mother of Malcolm Ferguson, who was wrongfully shot and killed by the New York City Police Department. The police officer, Louis Rivera, also a defendant in the case, was found to have used excessive force in violation of Malcolm Ferguson’s civil rights as protected under the United States Constitution.



A Bronx jury awarded plaintiff William Cardoza $4 million for injuries caused by the use of excessive force during an arrest. During the arrest, Mr. Cardoza was pepper-sprayed and repeatedly hit with a police nightstick. As a result, Mr. Cardoza sustained injuries to his hand and finger.



The firm’s client, a 33-year-old teacher’s assistant, was scalded by an espresso machine that exploded while the defendant’s employee was demonstrating how the machine worked. The client was a customer at the defendant’s coffee shop on the date of the accident and suffered first-degree burns to her right (dominant) hand.



The firm represented the mother- decedent and her infant son. During the decedent’s admission to the defendant hospital, the defendant dispensed anesthesia during an epidural to the decedent in an inadequate manner. The mother-decedent suffered personal injuries and wrongful death due to the defendant’s failure to properly administer epidural anesthesia.



Mr.Brennan fell from approximately 25 feet while working on a construction project. He suffered a shattered bone in his right leg requiring surgery and hardware placement. Mr. Brennan also suffered two fractures in his facial bones, and a dislocated finger requiring surgical repair.



The firm’s client was a child with cerebral palsy who was injured as a result of medical malpractice. The firm’s clients claimed improper management of pregnancy, labor, and delivery resulting in brain damage, and received a Brooklyn personal injury settlement.



The firm’s client, a 63-year-old mentally incompetent man, slipped and fell in his own urine while attempting to walk to the bathroom at the defendant’s senior citizen home. The client fractured his hip and as a result is confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. The client claimed that the staff of the home failed to properly care for him, and the jury awarded $1,677,835.



The firm’s client, a 47-year-old male, slipped and fell on a public sidewalk in the Bronx. It had snowed four to five days prior to the date of the accident, and the sidewalk was covered with ice. The client suffered a lumbar fracture and a herniated disc. The jury found the city liable and awarded the client a $2,995,000 personal injury settlement in the Bronx.



A Bronx jury awarded plaintiff Luis Molina $2.61 million for injuries sustained when he fell down a subway station stairway. Mr. Molina was caused to slip and fall as a result of a plastic bag that had blown onto the steps from a street opening. As a result of the fall, Mr. Molina suffered a herniated disc and a tear of his right shoulder’s rotator cuff. The jury found that the NYC Transit Authority was liable for the accident.



A Bronx jury awarded Ms. Colon $2.25 million for a trip and fall accident. Ms. Colon was caused to fall when she moved to the right to allow another pedestrian to pass, and her foot rolled to the outside due to the sidewalk being unlevel with the adjoining grass. The jury found the defendant liable and awarded Ms. Colon $2,253,714.00 for her pain and suffering.



A Brooklyn jury awarded Arvella Floyd $1.9 million for a fractured wrist which required multiple surgeries, including an open-reduction internal fixation and a carpal tunnel release. Ms. Floyd was injured when the hot water knob of the shower fell off after numerous complaints to the superintendent, and scalding water spewed toward her, causing her to
fall and break her wrist.



A Bronx jury awarded plaintiff Juanita Young $1,350,000 for injuries caused by the use of excessive force during an arrest. During the arrest, Ms. Young, who is legally blind, was handcuffed from behind, with her children watching, and taken to the top of the stairs to exit the building. The officer proceeded to push her down the stairs multiple times.

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I am completely satisfied, and recommend Harris Keenan & Goldfarb as Attorneys to represent anyone. Their care for me physically, and overall helped me stay strong in spite of my injuries. Always available to answer questions, and inform.They got me Justice, and achieved a substantial outcome for my case.I am very impressed, and thankful for their outstanding performance on my behalf.I am very pleased, and significantly satisfied with their representation.‐-Sherylon Wilkins
Robert LennonRobert Lennon
15:26 21 Feb 24
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Gene Matos (fanboye)Gene Matos (fanboye)
18:48 15 Jan 24
I first crossed paths with Seth Harris when serving jury duty many years ago. He was so professional and personable, that when my mom was seeking legal counsel for medical malpractice, I told her she had to reach out to his firm. We had meetings with a few different firms, but Harris Keenan & Goldfarb was the only firm that did not try to get us to sign paperwork before even meeting. They took the time to listen and understand our situation before we signed anything, and they were transparent and responsive the whole time. I would like to give special thanks to Samantha Walton, Marla Stein, Val Wallace and Seth Harris for helping my mom through this tough time. They were honest and upfront, and even though Seth Harris wasn't personally on the case, he took the time to meet with us and give us his thoughts on it.
Solange IsaacSolange Isaac
17:52 08 Jan 24
I am pleased with the services provided by Ms Sheri on my case. The team at Harris, Keenan, & Goldfarb were very nice and explained everything to me. Everything that I had questions on they answered without frustration and were prompt and knowledgeable.6 years ago I had a slip and fall accident at my employers place of business. I reached out to them because I knew that I was being wrongfully treated. They took care of the case, restored my self confidence, and brought so much peace to my problem riddled life.I can recommend without a shadow of a doubt the services of Harris, Keenan & Goldfarb to anyone who is in need of someone who will have your back!
Brittany DempseyBrittany Dempsey
16:02 08 Jan 24
My mother had an accident with her ankle back in 2019. I immediately contacted Harris, Keenan & Goldfarb on the day of the accident. They were extremely prompt and helpful. They attended to my mother's case beautifully and she's been recovering well. I'd like to thank you for being so diligent, kind and above all professional. I'd recommend this law firm to anyone who are injured and in need of legal assistance. My mother, Andrea, and I thank you for everything.
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