Punitive Damage Claims

North Carolina General Statutes Chapter 1D covers punitive damages and when those damages are available to Plaintiffs in North Carolina.   Essentially, punitive damages are meant to punish the defendant for “egregiously wrongful acts and to deter the defendant and others from committing similar wrongful acts.”  While punitive damages may be available in a number of situations, we most commonly see them in the context of a drunk driver who causes an accident.  Punitive damages are awarded in addition to any other compensatory damages a victim may be entitled to.  So, for example, if you have been injured in an accident with a drunk or impaired driver, you are entitled to recover for medical expenses (past and future), lost wages (past and future), scarring, disfigurement, pain and suffering, other damages that may apply PLUS punitive damages intended solely to punish the defendant’s conduct and deter the defendant and others from driving drunk.

Punitive damages may be awarded only if the Plaintiff proves that the defendant is liable for compensatory damages (for example, an injury suffered by the Plaintiff) and also proves, by clear and convincing evidence, that an aggravating factor exist that is related to the injury or damages for which compensatory damages were awarded.  Those aggravating factors are very specific and limited.  They are (1) fraud; (2) malice; (3) willful or wanton conduct.  North Carolina statutes define willful or 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.” Driving drunk or impaired and causing injury to someone else is considered willful or wanton conduct and gives rise to a claim for punitive damages.

It should be noted that there is a cap on recovery of punitive damages.  Punitive damages cannot exceed three times the amount of compensatory damages or two hundred fifty thousand dollars ($250,000), whichever is greater.  This cap, however, does NOT apply to drunk drivers.  So, a driver who is liable for compensatory damages who is impaired when he or she causes those damages is also subject to UNLIMITED punitive damages.

North Carolina law governing punitive damages can be complex, and handling these claims involves special knowledge and skill to negotiate a claim effectively with an insurance adjuster and to maximize recovery at trial if your case cannot be settled out of court.  Insurance adjusters and defense attorneys will often try to argue that a driver was not impaired when he caused an accident, even if he has a breathalyzer test result that is over the legal limit.  When you hire our lawyers on a drunk driving or impaired driving car accident case, we immediately gather all necessary data and documents and hire experts if necessary to prove the impairment.  We once had great success in one of these cases based off social networking postings of the defendant alone.  We leave no stone unturned and will fight to maximize your recovery in a punitive damages case involving personal injury.

If you are someone you know has sustained a personal injury because of a drunk driver, contact our office today to schedule your free consultation.  If your injuries prevent you from coming to our office or if you are without transportation, we will arrange a time to come to you.

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