Lakota R. Denton, PA

What are punitive damages and how do they affect my car accident case?

Can I receive punitive damages for my car accident case?

Punitive damages get a lot of media attention, especially when a jury awards a plaintiff a multimillion dollar verdict. The headlines that these verdicts create lead many auto accident victims to wonder if they could receive punitive damages for car accident cases.

Punitive Damages Definition

There are two types of damages that a plaintiff might receive from a jury: compensatory and punitive damages. Compensatory damages are based on the actual damage the injured person experienced, like medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering. Punitive damages are awarded specifically to punish a defendant for egregious actions. Punitive damages go above and beyond the plaintiff’s actual damages.

When are punitive damages awarded?

court house interiorPunitive damages are only awarded through trial. Because the vast majority of personal injury cases settle out of court, most plaintiffs do not receive punitive damages.

In North Carolina, punitive damages can only be awarded if a plaintiff can prove that the defendant is responsible for compensatory damages and that certain aggravating factors affected their injuries:

  • fraud
  • malice
  • willful or wanton conduct

These aggravating factors are not involved in most personal injury cases. Most cases involving punitive damages involve large corporations who manufacture and sell defective products that cause injury. Simple negligence car accident cases do not typically result in punitive damages awards.

Caps on punitive damages

North Carolina law places a cap on punitive damages. Punitive damage awards cannot total more than three times the amount of compensatory damages or $250,000, whichever is greater.

Punitive damages and drunk driving accident cases


Punitive damages sometimes come up in car accident cases that involve drunk driving. Juries often consider drunk driving to be willful and wanton conduct and may be willing to award punitive damages in such cases.

Drunk driving and punitive damagesDrunk driving cases are an exception to the cap on damages in North Carolina. This means that there is no limit to what amount of punitive damages a jury could award in a drunk driving case.

However, people injured by drunk drivers must be able to prove that a drunk driver’s actions were willful and wanton. There is no presumption of such behavior simply because a drunk driver blew above .08 percent on a breathalyzer test. An attorney for an injured victim may have to collect evidence demonstrating the drunk driver’s physical and mental state at the time of the accident. Evidence might include:

  • Video of the defendant at the scene of the accident. Police dashcam footage or smartphone video taken by people at the scene may be available if you were too injured to take video yourself.
  • Eyewitness accounts of the defendant’s drunken behavior
  • Bar tabs
  • The defendant’s previous DWIs, if any

Any of these pieces of evidence could prove a defendant was indifferent to the safety of other people and thus exhibited willful and wanton behavior.

Contact an Asheville personal injury attorney

Pay medical bills after car accident in Asheville NCMany injured people are able to resolve their car accident cases without a lawyer. However, when a car accident case goes to court, it’s usually best handled by an experienced personal injury attorney. People who were injured by drunk drivers, who suffered severe injuries, or who have high medical bills also often benefit from legal representation.

In addition to collecting evidence in your case, an attorney can talk to insurance adjusters, your medical providers, and other entities for you. This way, you can devote your attention to healing from your injuries and getting back to your routine. Call or email our personal injury attorneys today to discuss your case. Initial consultations are always free.

For more information, read our blog post entitled: How to pay your medical bills after an accident



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Lakota Denton

Lakota Denton

Lakota Denton is an Asheville, NC trial lawyer who focuses on recovering for injured people. Lakota has been practicing law in Asheville, N.C. since 2011. Lakota attended Keene State College in New Hampshire and graduated with a degree in psychology in 2000. Lakota played professional soccer after graduating from college. In 2011 Lakota graduated Cum Laude from Western New England college where he was awarded the Edward Cooley Award for Excellence in Labor Law, The CALI excellence for the future award for Labor Law, The CALI excellence for the future award for Jurisprudence Survey, The CALI excellence for the future award for Trial Methods, and was a member of the American Association for Justice Moot Court Team. Lakota has been practicing in his own firm since 2013, focusing solely on personal injury. He is a member of the American Association of Justice, the North Carolina Advocates for Justice, the North Carolina Bar association, the American Bar Association, the National Trial Lawyers, and was awarded Top 100 Trial Lawyers by the National Trial Lawyers, the 2014 Top 40 Lawyers under 40, and the Avvo clients choice award. He has spoken at the Asheville Paralegals Association Luncheon and he served on the North Carolina Advocates for Justice Auto Torts leadership team in 2017. Lakota has won numerous jury trials with verdicts for his clients. For more information, contact our office.   

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