When are punitive damages appropriate in a car accident case?

Punitive Damages in a Car Accident CaseMany different variables come into play in determining whether a car collision might give rise to an award of punitive damages.  Simple negligence is not sufficient to create a factual scenario for awarding punitive damages.  Even reckless conduct or driving drunk may not lead to an award of punitive damages.  But if you add to the mix circumstances which show a willful disregard for the safety of others, or evidence which shows a pattern of serious misconduct, the case might warrant the possibility of punitive damages.   

What Is the Difference Between Compensatory and Punitive Damages?

Compensatory damages are those which are intended to reimburse the victim for specific losses he has suffered, such as lost wages, medical expenses and pain and suffering damages. Punitive damages are those which are intended as punishment for the defendant and his conduct.  Punitive damages are also referred to as exemplary damages.

When Can Punitive Damages Be Awarded?

The circumstances for awarding punitive damages in a car crash claim has to arise above a mere accident.  For punitive damages to be applicable, there must be severe forms of misconduct. For example:

  • Two drivers are engaged in a game of chicken. The two drivers are competing to see who will swerve first, but the driver who swerves loses control and strikes a nearby motorist.
  • A drunk driver on his second or third DUI blows more than double the legal limit. He is picked up after striking a pedestrian walking through a residential area.
  • A driver who is accidentally cut off by another motorist experiences an episode of road rage. His speeding and carelessness results in multiple injuries, including victims left with lifelong disabilities—such a traumatic brain injury (TBI) or paralysis.

California Civil Code Section 3294 states: “In an action for the breach of an obligation not arising from contract, where it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant has been guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice, the plaintiff, in addition to the actual damages, may recover damages for the sake of example and by way of punishing the defendant.” Key terms are defined as follows:

  • Malice means conduct which is intended by the defendant to cause injury to the plaintiff or despicable conduct which is carried on by the defendant with a willful and conscious disregard for the rights or safety of others.
  • Oppression means despicable conduct that subjects a person to cruel and unjust hardship in conscious disregard of that person’s rights.

How Are Punitive Damages Determined?

Some states place a cap on punitive damages in personal injury settlements, but California does not. The law only states punitive damages must be proportionate to your compensatory damages. This means that cases involving serious and permanently disabling injuries may be eligible for the highest punitive damages.

While not the deciding factor, state law also requires that the defendant's financial situation be taken into consideration when deciding the dollar amount of the damages to be awarded. Since the purpose of punitive damages is to deter future bad behavior, a wealthy defendant with ample resources can be expected to pay a higher punitive damage award than someone who is living paycheck to paycheck.  A large punitive damage claim can provide the deterrent impact on a wealthy person or company while a smaller award might accomplish the same purpose on a person of lesser financial means.

It should be noted that insurance policies do not cover awards for punitive damages.  This means if you have a punitive damage claim you are going to pursue you need to make sure the target of the claim has ample funds to pay an award of punitive damages.

How Can an Attorney Help Me Prepare My Case?

Since cases involving punitive damages involve complex factual and legal issues, it is vital that you have an experienced personal injury attorney available to advocate for your needs. Your attorney can help you line up evidence, document expenses, and negotiate with the insurance company or others on your behalf. This leaves you free to focus on recovering from your injuries to the fullest extent possible. Personal injury attorneys work on a contingency fee basis, which means there is no upfront cost for your legal representation. The attorney accepts a percentage of your final settlement as the fee for his services.  If the attorney is unsuccessful in a contingency claim, then he does not get paid for his work.

Inland Empire Law Group's legal team is committed to helping injured California residents receive the personal injury compensation deserve. Call (888) 694-3529 today to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation.