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What Is Willful Negligence?

Written by Berkowitz


Negligence is a complex term that encompasses a few definitions under one blanket legal theory. In its most basic form, neglect is when one fails to use reasonable care. From there, negligence can branch into numerous forms. These various levels of neglect play a role in determining the type of injury claim you would file against the at-fault party as well as the potential damages.

Willful negligence is a type of neglect. But to understand what it is and how it applies to your case, you must understand the fundamental principle of neglect and its various forms.

Exploring the Types of Negligence Seen in Danbury, CT Injury Cases

There are three basic types of negligence that you would claim in a lawsuit: ordinary, gross, and willful.

What is Ordinary Negligence?

Ordinary negligence uses the “reasonable person” standard. There is a “reasonable” standard in society that expects people to act in a specific way under the circumstances. When someone does not follow what a reasonably careful person would do in a similar situation, they are guilty of ordinary negligence.

A person is required to protect others from injury, and they must take reasonable measures to prevent injury to other. Everyone in society has this requirement imposed upon them by the law. If a person is harmed because of the deviation from a “reasonable” person standard, the victim could hold the defendant accountable for damages (compensation).

Ordinary negligence typically applies to:

  • Product Liability
  • Car and Motorcycle Accidents
  • Slip and Falls
  • Catastrophic Injuries

What is Gross Negligence?

Gross negligence means that a person’s negligence was substantially higher than the ordinary standard. In this instance, the defendant was so indifferent toward how their actions or inactions would affect another person, that someone suffered an injury as a result.

The courts consider “gross negligence” when a person violates their legal duty to an extreme or they go beyond the reasonable standard deviation and knowingly engage in actions that would harm another person.

If the courts agree that a defendant was grossly negligent, then the victim might receive punitive damages on top of their compensatory damages.

An Example of Gross Negligence

A driver who blatantly ignores speed limits signs, driving 25 miles over the speed limit in a residential neighborhood and recklessly maneuvering in between cars, would be someone that is grossly negligent. The accident they cause because of this driving behavior would not only yield compensatory damages, but the courts are more likely to issue punitive damages to the victim(s) as well.

Gross negligence can also apply to medical malpractice cases. For example, a physician operates on the wrong side of a patient’s body, removing the right kidney instead of the left. In this case, their extreme deviation from a reasonable standard of care left a patient needing a kidney transplant to replace not only the healthy kidney but the diseased kidney left behind.

Gross negligence is not always intentional. But as you can see, the person committing the negligent act was more than aware their actions could cause harm.

What Is Willful or Reckless Conduct?

The third type of negligence that you do not see every day is willful or reckless conduct. Willful is below intent, and in this case, the defendant knew with high certainty that their actions would cause harm.

To prove willful or reckless behavior, you must show that the defendant knowingly engaged in an activity or intentionally disregarded the unreasonable risk to others. Also, the risk must have such a high probability of severe injury or death.

Willful does not have to be intentional or malicious but must be incredibly reckless. For example, a supervisor tells his employee to clean a machine while it is still running. This is against company protocol, and the supervisor knows that if a person were to become snagged on the machine it would cause catastrophic injuries. However, the supervisor ignored these risks and instructed the employee to do so anyway. The employee is caught in the machine and suffers from an arm amputation. The employer willfully neglected the dangers and directly put someone in harm’s way.

Does Willful Neglect Result in Punitive Damages?

Yes, in most cases willful neglect would also result in punitive damages because the defendant knowingly engaged in an activity that had a high probability someone would be injured or die. However, they ignored those risks.

Will I Get Punitive Damages?

As a victim who receives compensatory damages, under unique situations you could receive an additional award of punitive damages.

Connecticut only allows punitive (exemplary) damages when the evidence shows that the defendant was recklessly indifferent to your rights or conducted willful violations against your rights to safety. The statutes are quite clear on which circumstances warrant punitive damages and which do not. Therefore, if you think that you have a case which could yield punitive damages, you should first consult with an injury attorney.

What Civil Jury Instructions State

Connecticut Civil Jury Instruction (CCJI) states that punitive damages are not designed to compensate the victim for any financial or injuries losses. Instead, the CCJI says that punitive damages are solely intended to punish the defendant for their unacceptable and outrageous conduct and to serve as a deterrent to the public from engaging in similarly unacceptable behavior.

The jury must unanimously find that the conduct was grossly negligent or willfully negligent for the victim to receive punitive damages.

Punitive damages are rare in Connecticut. In fact, it is estimated that less than four percent of jury awards yield punitive damages to victims. When punitive damages happen, it often attracts media attention because sometimes these awards can be well over the compensatory value of the case.

The Three Guidelines for Punitive Damages

There are three primary guidelines in which punitive damages are measured.

  1. Degree of Conduct – The court must review the degree of unacceptable conduct and compare it to the reasonable standard of care. If the conduct is outrageously unacceptable, then the courts may give a higher punitive damage award than conduct that was skirting the line.
  2. Ratio – The court will also review the ratio of compensatory damages to punitive damages. While punitive damages are designed to punish, some punitive damage awards can be unjust and may be adjusted so that the ratios are balanced between punitive and compensatory.
  3. Criminal Fines – The courts will also review the punitive damage award and determine if civil or criminal fines were applied to the case as well. Then, they will decide how to levy those damages against the defendant for their actions.

The Limitations of Punitive Damages

Connecticut is one of the 20 states that still limits punitive damages. Most states do have limits for punitive damages, and they require that clear and convincing evidence is provided before they award a higher settlement value.

In Connecticut, they require that the preponderance of the evidence is used, which means proof by 50.01 percent – showing that the defendant was at fault for the injuries. The limits for punitive damages stem from a Supreme Court decision in 1992 in Berry v. Louiseau. In this case, the punitive damages were limited to actual litigation costs and attorney’s fees.

Currently, the statute states that punitive damages are limited to attorney’s fees and any nontaxable costs. There are examples of how punitive damages may be limited in the civil statute, which is what judges use to decide what amount is fair.

Examples of Civil Statutes that Allow Punitive Damages in Connecticut

  • CGA Section 14-295 – When the defendant deliberately causes the injury or has a reckless disregard while operating a motor vehicle. The court grants double or triple damages for victims.
  • CGA Section 52-240(b) – Under product liability claims, punitive damages may not exceed twice the compensatory damage amounts.

In these cases, the damages are more than the cost of litigation. However, in most injury cases, you will find that your punitive damage award will not exceed attorney’s fees, filing costs, and other costs associated with your litigation (i.e., witness testimony, investigator fees, and so forth).

What Compensatory Damages Can You Receive?

While you might not receive millions in punitive damages, realize that receiving money to cover all legal costs reduces how much of the compensatory damage award you would lose. Therefore, you will still walk away with more compensation than you would have without punitive damages.

Here are a couple of examples of compensatory damages you may recover in your case.

  • Medical Costs – A severe injury often creates medical debt that can quickly add up. Most of the compensatory damages you receive come from medical expenses. You will receive compensation for your physician’s services, future medical costs, physical therapy, over-the-counter medications, prescription medications, medical equipment, and any treatments necessary to help you recover.
  • Loss of Income – With a severe injury comes time off work. If you cannot return to work, you may also receive compensation for loss of future earning capacity. You can claim lost wages due to absences while recovering, going to appointments, and undergoing treatments. If the victim were to die from their injuries, a surviving spouse and children may be able to recover compensation for the wages the victim would have contributed to the family.

Speak with an Injury Advocate Today

For your serious injury, the last thing you need to worry about is defining punitive damages, willful conduct, or ordinary negligence. Instead, you need an attorney who can review your case and determine the proper amount of compensation you are entitled to.

Contact Berkowitz and Hanna, LLC today to schedule a no-obligation case evaluation. Call us or contact us online to get started.