What Is Arizona’s Punitive Damages Statute?
By Zachary Mushkatel on May 1, 2018
A judge or jury can force the responsible party in a personal injury, medical malpractice, or other type of lawsuit to pay the victim different kinds of damages, from medical expenses to physical and emotional pain and suffering. One type of damages, known as “punitive damages” or “exemplary damages,” requires the responsible party to compensate the victim as punishment for their actions rather than to pay for costs the victim has had to bear.
Arizona law makes it very difficult to sue for punitive damages in most cases. This difficulty comes from the lack of guidance in the laws on the books, coupled with restrictive state court rulings that have allowed for punitive damages only under particular circumstances. Understanding the kinds of cases where punitive damages are possible can help you determine whether you might be able to recover them in your case.
If you think you may be able to sue for punitive damages, an experienced Arizona personal injury attorney can help you build a strong case to demand that the responsible party pay for their actions.
The Standard for Punitive Damages
Punitive damages can be difficult to understand in Arizona because there is not a specific law on the books that says when it’s appropriate to award them in most cases. The relevant rules have instead been laid out in case law, or opinions handed down by courts throughout the state’s history. The current standard that Arizona courts use to decide whether they can award punitive damages is determining whether the person responsible was acting with an “evil mind.”
A person with an “evil mind” doesn’t necessarily have to act like a cartoon movie villain. The term essentially means that they knew they were causing their victim harm by their actions and did it anyway. More specifically, Arizona courts have narrowed down circumstances that constitute an “evil mind” to two categories:
- The first is when the person had ill will and intentionally caused harm to the victim.
- The second is when the person knows what he or she is doing is so unsafe that it is incredibly likely to hurt someone and does so anyway.
Either of these states of mind can be difficult, though not necessarily impossible, to prove in most civil lawsuits.
How Punitive Damages Differ from Other Damages
The standard described above for punitive damages is much higher than the standards used to award other types of compensation in Arizona civil lawsuits. For most damages, the plaintiff only has to prove the defendant acted with “negligence” rather than an “evil mind.”
Negligence simply means that the person had a reasonable duty of care to do something, that he or she failed to take that care, and that the failure caused the victim to be injured. For example, in an auto accident case, a driver who is looking at his or her cellphone is breaching the reasonable expectation of watching the road. If the driver hits and injures another driver because of that, he or she may be found to have acted negligently.
Proving negligence is enough to win the most common types of damages in a civil lawsuit, including compensation for medical expenses, car repairs, physical pain and suffering, and more. However, it is not enough to recover punitive damages.
Punitive Damages in Different Types of Lawsuits
Not all civil lawsuits are the same. From personal injury to medical malpractice, different lawsuits involve many factors. It should come as no surprise that recovering punitive damages can take many different forms depending on the type of case. Here are a few examples of different kinds of lawsuits and how they might lead to punitive damages in Arizona:
Auto accidents: Most car accidents are just that: an accident. However, in some cases, a driver might intentionally hit another or might do something so dangerous on the road that they know they will hurt others around them. An example of a driver with an “evil mind” might include someone who, provoked by road rage, intentionally slams his car into the car in front of him to hurt the other driver.
Other injury claims: Personal injury cases can take a number of forms, and some of them might lend themselves more to punitive damages. For example, if someone intentionally assaulted you, aside from a criminal trial, you may be able to recover punitive damages from the attacker in a civil lawsuit.
Medical malpractice: Since medical professionals are charged with helping patients, it’s hard to believe they would intentionally cause harm, but in some cases, they do. For example, a nurse who is particularly annoyed with a patient may knowingly and willfully let the patient’s bedsores go untreated. In this case, the victim may be able to sue for punitive damages.
Insurance bad faith: An insurance bad faith claim arises when an insurance company intentionally refuses to compensate the insured, such as by refusing to pay for expenses the policy terms say they will cover. If the company does this intentionally, knowing that it is hurting the insured, it may be forced to pay punitive damages. Arizona courts have at times granted and at times denied punitive damages in this type of case, so the current state of the law on this issue is somewhat murky.
This is not an exhaustive list of types of civil lawsuits or of the ways punitive damages can be awarded in them. However, an experienced Arizona injury lawyer can help you determine whether you might be able to seek punitive damages.
Contact Us Today to Discuss Your Case
If you have grounds to file a civil suit in Arizona, whether it is for an injury accident, medical malpractice, or something else entirely, chances are that you are hurting, physically, financially, or both. The pain and stress are often made worse when you know your injury was caused intentionally.
Mushkatel, Robbins & Becker, PLLC, can help. Our experienced Phoenix civil law attorneys understand the nuances of punitive damages in Arizona and are prepared to help you determine whether you can make the party responsible pay for its actions. For more information about how we can help, call our law firm today at (480) 467-3434.
Zachary Mushkatel is an Arizona native who earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Arizona in 2001 and his law degree from the University of Minnesota Law School in 2004. After serving as a public defender, he entered into private practice and, ultimately, joined forces with Mathis Becker to form the law firm known today as Mushkatel, Robbins & Becker, PLLC. In addition to criminal law, Mushkatel practices civil litigation, with a focus on estate litigation and personal injury cases. He also serves on the Board of Directors for the Surprise Regional Chamber of Commerce and Sun Valley Lodge, and he is an executive officer and member of the Board of Directors for the West Maricopa County Bar Association.