Louisiana law allows three different types of damages in personal injury claims: economic damages, non-economic damages, and punitive damages. You must qualify for economic, non-economic, or both before a Louisiana court will even consider awarding punitive damages.
What Are Punitive Damages?
Economic damages and non-economic damages, together called “compensatory damages,” compensate the injured party for actual and prospective losses. Punitive damages, by contrast, punish the defendant for outrageous behavior. The purpose of punitive damages is to deter the defendant and other people from repeating the offending behavior.
Punitive Damages Under Louisiana Law
Although the US Constitution is the ultimate authority to which Louisiana law must submit, state law still retains some of its distinctive features. Louisiana’s history of French and Spanish influence has left an imprint on the Louisiana Civil Code, which governs personal injury claims. This influence is evident in its treatment of punitive damages in personal injury and wrongful death claims.
The Limited Scope of Punitive Damages in Louisiana
In Louisiana personal injury law, punitive damages are generally not allowed. The only exceptions occur when a statute authorizes the award of punitive damages. More specifically, Louisiana courts can award punitive damages in a case where the defendant:
- Causes a car accident while driving while intoxicated;
- Commits a sex crime against a child under 18 years old;
- Injures someone through an act involving child pornography;
- Recklessly or wantonly kills someone in an act of hazing; or
- Injures someone in an act of domestic violence.
Louisiana also allows punitive damages under certain circumstances where they are authorized by the law of another state with a connection to the case. The general rule is that punitive damages may not exceed 10 times the amount of compensatory damages. In actual practice, they rarely reach such heights.
The award of punitive damages is not automatic in Louisiana, even if they may be awarded by law. Instead, a Louisiana court will look at the specific facts of each individual case to determine whether an award of punitive damages is appropriate. Important factual considerations include:
- The nature and seriousness of the defendant’s misconduct. The more serious the misconduct, the more likely it is that a court will award punitive damages.
- The magnitude of the harm. As you might expect, the more serious the harm, the more likely it is that a court will award punitive damages.
- The defendant’s finances. A Louisiana court is more likely to award punitive damages against a rich defendant than against a poor defendant. The reason for this is that the payment of mere compensatory damages might constitute a paltry sum for a rich defendant. In other words, it might not be enough to deter the defendant from future misconduct.
- The likelihood that the defendant will repeat their misconduct. If the likelihood of repeated misconduct is high without punitive damages, a Louisiana court is more likely to award them.
A court may take other factors into consideration as well.
Louisiana Wrongful Death Claims
A personal injury claim becomes a wrongful death claim if the defendant dies from the injury. In that case, certain specified relatives can file a wrongful death claim, such as the surviving spouse. A court will divide damages among survivors as justice demands. It also may award punitive damages to survivors on the same conditions that they award punitive damages in personal injury cases.
Are Employers Liable for Punitive Damages for the Misconduct of Their Employees?
With respect to compensatory damages, employers are generally financially liable for misconduct committed by an employee if the misconduct was within the scope of the employee’s work duties. The employee is considered an agent of their employer, which is typically a company rather than an individual.
In Louisiana, however, this type of liability is a legal gray area because the Louisiana Supreme Court has not yet decided on this issue. Louisiana circuit courts of appeal have issued inconsistent results. Sometimes employers are liable for punitive damages based on the misconduct of their employees, and sometimes they are not.
Punitive Damages in Settlement Negotiations
In private settlement negotiations, the willingness of a defendant to settle for a particular amount generally depends on how much money (if any) they believe a court would award at trial. Punitive damages, however, are difficult to obtain through settlement negotiations. Defendants usually refuse to agree to punitive damages, leaving it to the plaintiff to file a lawsuit to seek them.
You’ll Almost Certainly Need a Lafayette Personal Injury Lawyer To Help You Win Punitive Damages
Punitive damages are a hard sell in Louisiana courts. To win them, you must know the law backward and forward, and you must be persuasive in the presence of a judge who knows the law. Without an experienced Lafayette personal injury lawyer, your chances of winning punitive damages are slim to none.