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.

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When are punitive damages awarded?

Punitive 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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