When someone is harmed by wrongdoing, our civil justice system allows them to recover damages. These damages can include economic damages for things like medical bills and lost wages, and noneconomic damages for losses that are harder to quantify, things like physical and emotional pain or loss of enjoyment of life.
But what if a wrongdoer acted so badly, or with such indifference toward the health and safety of others, that a normal damages award may not be enough to prevent them from engaging in the harmful conduct again? In these instances, juries can award punitive damages. Punitive damages go beyond compensating the plaintiff for their losses and are designed to punish the defendant and deter future dangerous behavior.
Punitive damages are rare, and Oregon law has strict rules regulating when a jury may award them and how the court must distribute them.
When juries may consider punitive damages
ORS 31.730 sets standards dictating whether a case necessitates punitive damages and, if so, factors to be considered in deciding the amount of damages to be awarded. In Oregon, a jury may only award punitive damages if the plaintiff can show, through clear and convincing evidence, that one of the following is true:
- The defendant acted with a reckless and outrageous disregard for the health, safety and well-being of others, despite the fact that the risk of harm was high; or
- The defendant acted out of malice.
If the plaintiff can meet either of these tests, the jury may award punitive damages. The court will review the punitive damages award to ensure it is appropriate given the facts of the case. If the defendant can establish that he or she took remedial measures to prevent a reoccurrence of the conduct which caused the plaintiff harm, courts may reduce the awarded amount.
How the courts distribute punitive damages
Contrary to popular belief, punitive damages are not a windfall for the plaintiff. In fact, 70% of an award of punitive damages in Oregon goes to the State of Oregon, to be used for funding the Criminal Injuries Compensation Account and the State Court Facilities and Security Account. The remaining 30% goes to the plaintiff and their attorneys.
If you or someone you know has been injured by the wrongdoing of another, contact us to see if we can help.