Every individual has certain duties under the law. Under the criminal law system, people are required to refrain from doing certain actions, such as committing murder, assault, and battery. Under the tort law system, the law imposes a duty of care on people, mandating that if someone does not act with reasonable care, he or she may be held financially liable for damages he causes.
Willful misconduct is a legal term primarily applied in tort law to distinguish intentional torts from negligent torts. It refers to an action that someone intentionally does that injures a victim. For example, driving a car too fast and causing a car accident would be negligence, while intentionally running someone over would be classified as willful misconduct.
The distinction between negligent torts and willful or intentional torts is important because of the different penalties associated with intentional torts. In both negligent and intentional torts, a plaintiff is entitled to recover actual damages for the defendant's breach, such as medical bills and lost wages. A plaintiff is only entitled to recover punitive damages, however, if the tort was intentional or if the behavior was so reckless that injury was almost guaranteed to result.
Punitive damages are designed not to make the victim whole, but to punish the tortfeasor. They are permitted in cases of willful misconduct, but not negligence, because they are designed to act as a deterrent. A tortfeasor may be more reluctant to run someone over on purpose or to hit someone and injure them on purpose if he knows that he can be sued for punitive damages and face the potential for serious financial loss.
A plaintiff who is alleging willful misconduct must prove that the defendant acted with intent, in addition to proving the other elements of the tort action, such as the fact that he was injured and suffered damages. Intent can be proven by the circumstances of the crime, if for example, the defendant clearly injured the plaintiff on purpose. Intent can also be proven by witness statement, victim testimony and related forms of evidence.
Examples of torts that constitute willful misconduct include intentional battery, assault, or sexual harassment. In all those cases, the defendant's actions were clearly designed to hurt, he didn't just hurt by accident. He did exactly what he wanted to do, or he behaved willfully.