Can I Get Punitive Damages in a Colorado Injury Case?

  • Personal Injury
June 22, 2023

Punitive damages have a somewhat controversial reputation—they are much sought-after by plaintiffs and reviled by defendants. Many of the most headline-grabbing civil cases have involved punitive damages. For example, in the famous “McDonald’s Coffee” case, the plaintiff was awarded $160,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages.

It’s understandable for those injured in Colorado to wonder if they can get punitive damages in their case, both for the higher amount they can recover and out of a desire for justice for the wrongs they’ve suffered.

What Are Punitive Damages?

In our legal system, in most cases, damages are awarded to "make the plaintiff whole again." That is, they are meant to put the plaintiff in the same position before they were negatively affected by the defendant's actions, at least to the extent that this can be achieved through money. They are not meant to make anyone rich but rather to compensate them for their injuries; for this reason, they are known as "compensatory damages."

Punitive damages—known in Colorado as "exemplary damages"—are meant to serve another purpose. As the name implies, they are supposed to punish the defendant's bad behavior. For this reason, punitive damages are usually reserved for situations where the defendant's actions were intentional. The jury sends a message: "You knew what you were doing was wrong, but you did it anyway, so just paying compensatory damages isn't enough."

What Are the Colorado Rules on Punitive Damages?

Punitive damages are considered extraordinary, so lawmakers have placed many restrictions on when they may be awarded and in what amount.

Under Colorado law, punitive damages may be appropriate when the defendant injures the plaintiff due to fraud, malice, or willful and wanton conduct.

  • Fraud - Fraud occurs when someone intentionally makes a false representation of an important fact with the intent that the other person will act on that misrepresentation. Fraud is most commonly financial, for example, selling a property that the person doesn't own.
  • Malice – Malice means acting with “evil intent.” That is, one person acted with intent of causing harm to another person (usually a specific person). For example, accidentally rear-ending someone in traffic is just ordinary negligence, while intentionally driving your car into the house of someone you hate is an act of malice.
  • Willful and Wanton Conduct – This is when someone acts with "reckless disregard" for the health and safety of others, ignoring the potential danger posed by their actions. Rather than acting with the intent to harm others, willful and wanton conduct is more like the person just doesn't care that their actions may cause harm.

Colorado law also limits how much a plaintiff can recover in punitive damages. In most cases, punitive damages may not exceed the amount awarded in compensatory damages. So, if a plaintiff were awarded $100,000 in compensatory damages, any punitive damages would be capped at $100,000. However, punitive damages may be awarded in an amount up to 300% of compensatory damages if, since the case began, the defendant has either continued to act willfully and wantonly (against the plaintiff or others) or the defendant has continued to act willfully and wantonly against the plaintiff in a way that has aggravated the plaintiff's injuries.

Discuss Your Case with a Personal Injury Expert

Personal injury lawsuits are often long and complicated, especially cases that may involve punitive damages. If someone has injured you and you think the circumstances may warrant punitive damages, meet with one of our experienced attorneys to discuss your case. Our personal injury specialists can devise the best plan and guide you throughout the process. To get started, contact our office today.

Get The Help You Need

Get JBP Legal’s experience on your side. Contact us for questions or a consultation.