When Are Punitive Damages Awarded for Car Accident Injuries?

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In a large majority of situations, your car accident damages reflect the two major categories in which you have suffered harm:

  • Economic damages compensate you for money that came out of your pocket (such as medical bills and property damage), and wages that you could have earned had you been able to continue to work.
  • Non-economic damages are intended to pay you back for how you have suffered since the car accident, both physically and emotionally.

To discuss specifics pertaining to your case please give our car accident lawyers a call today.

How Punitive Damages Work in North Carolina

There is a third category of damages that has practically nothing to do with how you have suffered and everything to do with what the defendant did. In certain cases, a jury will award punitive damages when they want to punish a driver and send a message that the driver’s actions were extremely wrong.

Under North Carolina law, punitive damages are intended to “punish a defendant for egregiously wrongful acts and to deter the defendant and others from committing similar wrongful acts.”

Wanton Actions Could Be Enough to Get Punitive Damages

Although proving actual malice is one way to be able to get punitive damages, there is no requirement that the defendant acted with purposeful intent to injure you. The key here is that the acts were egregious. In North Carolina, you may qualify for punitive damages if the defendant acted in a wanton manner. “Wanton” means that a person has acted without regard for the consequences.

There is a dual intent to both punish and keep the defendant from acting the same way in the future. In that regard, punitive damages are retrospective, punishing past conduct and acting as a deterrent to prevent future conduct.

Punitive Damages Do Not Happen Often in Personal Injury Cases

To be clear, punitive damages are very rare. It takes some type of extraordinary action by a driver for the jury to award them. “Egregious” is a rather extreme word that describes acts that went far beyond “garden variety” negligence.

Punitive damages are perhaps even rarer in car accident cases than in other types of personal injury actions. For example, juries will be more likely to award punitive damages in the event of corporate misconduct in a product liability case.

You Can Only Get Punitive Damages in a Lawsuit

Only a jury has the potential to award punitive damages to a car accident plaintiff. Since these damages are done as a punishment, they must be done by an entity that has the legal power to apply them. You will not get punitive damages if your case settles with the insurance company. They do not have a legal duty to pay these damages to you, nor will they.

When You May Get Punitive Damages

Circumstances under which a jury may award punitive damages include:

  • Your loved one was severely injured by a drunk driver.
  • The other driver in the accident was driving extremely recklessly.
  • You were involved in an accident with a driver who was on the job at the time of the crash, and the company that employed them had a systemic pattern of violating motor vehicle laws.

For example, you may have a case for punitive damages if you were seriously injured by another driver who was traveling in excess of 100 mph. There is no bright line test in a car accident case. The jury will know egregious conduct if it sees it.

The issue is that most car accident cases involve ordinary negligence. In that case, you cannot get punitive damages.

There is a Cap on Punitive Damages Unless the Defendant was Drunk Driving

Even when you receive punitive damages in a car accident, North Carolina law imposes some caps. Specifically, you cannot receive more than the greater of:

  • Three times your compensatory damages (the total of your economic and non-economic damages)
  • $250,000

Your punitive damages must be reasonably related to the actual injuries that you have suffered. In North Carolina, there are statutory caps. Even if a jury awards you punitive damages, it may be subject to challenge on appeal. There is no limit on punitive damages in drunk driving cases.

A car accident attorney will review your case and determine your best legal options going forward. If the other driver acted egregiously, you might file a lawsuit as opposed to an insurance claim. You will need to request punitive damages at the outset of a lawsuit. Then the jury will consider them when you reach the damages phase of the case after you have proven negligence.

Contact a Wilmington Car Accident Attorney

If you or a loved one have suffered an injury in a car accident, the lawyers at Horton & Mendez Injury Attorneys can fight for you to receive full and fair financial compensation for your injuries if someone else was to blame.

Your first step is to call us for a free consultation, where we will discuss your case and advise you of your legal options for compensation. To speak with one of our attorneys, send us a message online or call us at (910) 668-8067.

Car Accident Case FAQs

Do I need to prove negligence to get punitive damages?

Absolutely. Not only do you need to prove that the driver acted unreasonably, but you must also show how egregious their actions were.

Can the defendant appeal punitive damages?

Yes. Sometimes a trial judge may reduce the verdict. Other times, a verdict of punitive damages may not survive an appeal.

Is there a reason not to take my case to the jury?

When you have a personal injury trial, there is always a risk that you may get nothing. Settling the claim may help reduce your risk.

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