Precisely what are punitive damages, and when do they apply? Punitive damages are a civil remedy meant to punish a wrongdoer or tortfeasor who has caused injury and damage to others due to their egregious conduct. Punitive damages are also meant to send a message to the community to deter the defendant and others from doing the same thing.

There are many acts and instances in which punitive damages may apply, such as fraud or malice (both require an element of intent against the injured party). Another typical example we see in a personal injury setting is when the defendant is impaired, either through drugs or alcohol, at the time of a motor vehicle accident.

In those instances, there is usually no specific intent to harm a particular person. Instead, the risk is general to anyone who has the unfortunate experience of coming in contact with the impaired person, resulting in an accident that causes injury. When a driver is impaired, it is generally considered willful and wanton conduct for punitive damages purposes.

NCGS §1D-5(7) defines willful and wanton conduct as “the conscious and intentional disregard of and indifference to the rights and safety of others, which the defendant knows or should know is reasonably likely to result in injury, damage, or other harm. ‘Willful or wanton conduct’ means more than gross negligence.”

Punitive damages are typically capped at $250,000 or three times the compensatory damages. Compensatory damages are the damages incurred, such as medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering. However, there is no cap on punitive damages when the defendant was impaired.

People often mistakenly believe that punitive damages are allowable in hit-and-run cases. However, the egregious part of that conduct, the “run” part, happened after the injury occurred. While still bad behavior, the conduct is not the cause of injuries and damages. However, if the defendant was impaired and then fled the scene, that may be a factor in the punitive damages award. A jury can consider whether the defendant attempted to conceal the facts or the consequences of his conduct.

There are other factors that a jury may consider when awarding punitive damages. These include the reprehensibility of their conduct, the likelihood of serious harm, the degree of their awareness of the likely consequences (everyone knows you are not supposed to drink and drive—the legal limit in North Carolina is 0.08). The severity of damages suffered, similar past conduct (is this their first DWI offense?), and the defendant’s ability to pay may be taken into consideration. Most often, in a motor vehicle case, the damages will be paid by the defendant’s automobile liability insurance rather than come out of their pocket. Still, this evidence is inadmissible at trial.

Some other situations where punitive damages are considered in motor vehicle accidents are when the at-fault driver engages in a speed competition with another driver (racing) or travels more than 20 mph over the speed limit. As of this writing, there are no known cases interpreted either by the North Carolina Court of Appeals or the North Carolina Supreme Court regarding distracted driving (namely using a mobile device while driving) and punitive damages. In that regard, it seems that North Carolina case law has not kept up with technology. 

While it is against the law in North Carolina for anyone to text and drive (NCGS §20-137.4A—includes reading texts and emails), there have not been any decisions handed down by the North Carolina courts whether or not punitive damages are applicable. This is although there have been studies showing that distracted driving can be more pervasive and dangerous than impaired driving. Anecdotally, at the trial level, courts have ruled both ways, depending on the particular facts of the case and the nature and extent of the cell phone usage.

Concerning impaired driving and punitive damages in North Carolina, one thing to note is although part of the statute’s intent is to deter others in the community, if the tortfeasor dies, punitive damages are no longer available. This is true even if the cause of death is not related to the accident in any way. The North Carolina courts have held that because another stated purpose of the statute is to punish the wrongdoer, you cannot punish a deceased person.

At the Law Offices of Jason E. Taylor, PC, we have experience handling claims where punitive damages are alleged. If you have been seriously injured by an impaired or distracted driver, we offer free consultations to see if we can help.

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