When someone is harmed by the negligent conduct of another, 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 sometimes a wrongdoer has done something that goes beyond negligence. Something that demonstrates such an indifference toward the health and safety of others that a normal damages award may not be enough. In these rare cases, juries can award punitive damages. Punitive damages are designed to punish an extreme wrongdoer and deter them from engaging in the harmful conduct again.
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 dictates whether a case necessitates punitive damages and, if so, factors that help guide a jury considering the amount of punitive damages to award. 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 any punitive damages awarded by an Oregon jury goes to the State of Oregon, to help fund programs for crime victims and state court facilities. The remaining 30% goes to the plaintiff and their attorneys, and these funds are taxable.
If you or someone you know has been injured by the wrongdoing of another, contact us to see if we can help.