Exactly what are punitive damages and when do they apply? Punitive damages are a civil remedy meant to punish a wrongdoer or tortfeasor, who due to their egregious conduct, has caused injury and damage to others. Punitive damages are also meant to send a message to the community in an effort to deter the defendant, as well as others, from doing the same thing.
While there are many acts and instances in which punitive damages may apply, such as fraud or malice (both of which require an element of intent against the injured party), one of the most common examples 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 specific person. Instead, the risk is general to anyone who has the unfortunate experience to come in contact with the impaired person that results in an accident that causes injury. When a driver is impaired, for punitive damages purposes it is generally considered willful and wanton conduct.
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 actually incurred, such as medical bills, lost wages and pain and suffering. However, there is no cap on punitive damages where 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 because a jury is allowed to consider whether the defendant attempted to conceal the facts or consequences of his conduct.
Other factors that a jury may consider when awarding punitive damages are the reprehensibility of his or her conduct, the likelihood of serious harm, the degree of his or her 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 actual damages suffered (the seriousness of the injuries caused), any similar past conduct (is this his or her first DWI offense?) and the defendant’s ability to pay (most often in a motor vehicle case the damages will be paid by the defendant’s automobile liability insurance rather than come out of his or her own pocket, but this evidence is inadmissible at trial).
Some other situations where punitive damages are considered in motor vehicle accidents are when the at-fault driver is engaging in a speed competition with another driver (racing), or is traveling in excess of 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 use of 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 as to whether or not punitive damages would be applicable in such situations, despite the fact there have been studies to show 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.
One thing to note with regard to impaired driving and punitive damages in North Carolina is that even though part of the stated intent of the statute is to deter others in the community, if the tortfeasor dies as a result of the accident, or at any time prior to a resolution of the claim, even if the cause of death is not related to the accident in any way, punitive damages are no longer available. That is because 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.