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Punitive Damages may be available in Car Accident Cases

Punitive damages may be available when a person is injured in a car accident or other accident. When a person is injured in a car wreck of other accident which is the result of the negligence of someone else, the injured person can recover "damages". Damages is a legal term for the harms and losses that the injured person in the car wreck received in the wreck. Usually, these damages are limited to "compensatory damages". Compensatory damages are those damages that are equal to the harms and losses. For example, in a car accident, compensatory damages might include the cost of fixing the automobile, medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering. A settlement or jury verdict should equal the harms and losses suffered by the injured person unless there are problems with liability and/ or disputes over the amount of harm caused by the wreck.

However, there are certain situations where the law allows an injured person to collect more than compensatory damages. These damages, called "punitive damages", can be in addition to pain and suffering, medical bills, and lost wages and are intended to deter similar conduct from the defendants and others like them.

In North Carolina, punitive damages have been deemed appropriate in three (3) fact scenarios where car accidents are involved. First, an injury victim can recover punitive damages where a defendant was traveling at an excessive speed. An example of this type of car wreck would be a person speeding 20 mph over the speed limit through a school zone. Second, a car accident victim could recover punitive damages if the defendant was engaged in a road race. An example of this type of car wreck case would be one where two teenagers were racing and struck another car head one. The third type car wreck where punitive damages would be available involves drunk driving. North Carolina statutes specifically allow this type of recovery in a DUI wreck and (unlike other punitive cases where the maximum recovery is three (3) times the compensatory damages), there is no limit on what a jury can award for punitive damages in drunk driving cases.

Although North Carolina so far has only recognized punitive damages in the three (3) scenarios above, the law allows for punitive damages whenever the defendant's conduct is extremely reckless or even intentional. For example, a car wreck that resulted from passing a stopped school bus could arguably result in punitive damages. A car wreck involving texting while driving might also involve conduct so reckless that the law would allow punitive damages.

When considering whether to award punitive damages, the jury must consider several factors including whether or not the defendant has the ability to pay, the number of times the defendant has engaged in this type of conduct, and whether the defendant was aware of the danger of his/ her conduct. In drunk driving car wrecks, where the defendant often has prior DUI convictions and should know of the danger of his conduct to the driving public, punitive damages can reach high numbers.

In order to determine whether punitive damages are appropriate in a car wreck, it is helpful to have an attorney review the case who is experienced with personal injury law who can spot potential punitive damages claims.

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