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Are Punitive Damages Available in a Car Accident in North Carolina?

What are punitive damages in a car accident case? Punitive damages are a type of compensation that people may recover through personal injury lawsuits. They punish an at-fault party for egregiously wrongful acts and are meant to deter similar conduct in the future. Punitive damages are rarely awarded in North Carolina car accident claims, but it all depends on the facts of the case.

North Carolina law sets specific circumstances that could qualify individuals for punitive damages, and only some cases meet these standards. Still, punitive damages can make a difference in your claim.  A North Carolina car accident lawyer at Younce, Vtipil, Baznik & Banks, P.A. can explain whether punitive damages could be possible in your case.

Our law firm includes a team of experienced car accident attorneys who take a hands-on, personalized approach to every case. Call (919) 661-9000 or contact us today for a free consultation.

When Are Punitive Damages Awarded in North Carolina?

Punitive damages penalize a defendant’s conduct and actions and aim to prevent future dangerous behavior. They are available in a wide range of civil actions. Juries may award punitive damages alongside compensatory damages. Unlike punitive damages, compensatory damages reimburse accident victims for the specific harm they suffered, such as medical bills, lost wages, physical pain, and emotional suffering.

Under North Carolina law, awarding punitive damages is allowable in situations where at least one of the following exists:

  • Fraud– Fraud is the intentional deception made for personal gain or to damage another individual. In the context of punitive damages, fraud signifies that the defendant knowingly misrepresented facts or concealed important information to deceive the plaintiff.
  • Malice– Malice signals a wrongful motive, where the defendant’s actions intend to cause harm with a reckless disregard for the safety and welfare of others. For punitive damages, North Carolina addresses malice as a personal hostility toward the plaintiff, which prompts the defendant to engage in a wrongful act that could harm the plaintiff.
  • Willful or wanton conduct– Willful or wanton conduct addresses the defendant’s deliberate actions, which they purposefully engage in despite knowing their actions could cause harm. These intentional acts consciously disregard others’ safety.

The victim is responsible for proving the defendant’s fraudulent, malicious, or intentional conduct caused their car accident injuries. This can be a challenging standard to meet. Showing the defendant reasonably knew their behavior could cause harm or injury requires clear and convincing evidence, which is a high burden and often requires extensive documentation.

When Is a Car Accident Plaintiff Entitled to Punitive Damages?

Car accident claims that might qualify for punitive damages typically involve willful or wanton conduct and malice rather than fraud. Still, every auto accident is different and requires individual case evaluation. Possible situations for punitive damages after a serious car accident include:

  • Impaired driving– The inherent risks of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol are widely known. Intoxicated drivers understand what they’re doing is innately dangerous, which could meet the willful or wanton conduct standard.
  • Aggressive driving– Motor vehicle accidents caused by excessive speeding, tailgating, racing, unsafe passing or merging, road rage, and other aggressive driving behaviors could result in punitive damages if the plaintiff can prove that the driver intentionally engaged in conduct that endangered other motorists and could lead to a motor vehicle accident.

Factors in Determining Punitive Damages

When evaluating possible punitive damages in North Carolina, juries assess various factors related to the defendant and their conduct, including:

  • Reprehensibility– Evaluating the nature of the misconduct and the harm caused is critical for placing a value on punitive damages. The more blameworthy the defendant’s conduct is, the stronger the case for punitive damages.
  • Likeliness of injury– This element does not address whether actual harm occurred but whether it was apparent the defendant’s behavior could cause serious harm. A higher foreseeable risk of harm strengthens the justification for punitive damages.
  • Awareness– If the defendant was conscious of the potential consequences of their actions and their ability to cause possible harm, this awareness could provide insight into their motivations and culpability.
  • Duration– The length of time the defendant engaged in the harmful behavior is crucial. Extended periods of misconduct suggest a persistent disregard for the well-being of others, making a stronger case for punitive damages.
  • Claimant’s losses– The court will consider the actual negative impact on the injured individual, including economic and non-economic damages. Generally speaking, the greater the losses, the more compelling the argument for punitive damages.
  • Possible concealment– Hiding harmful actions shows a conscious effort to evade responsibility, which can justify punitive damages. An attempt to hide behavior suggests a defendant knew their actions were
  • Track record– A repeated pattern of harmful behavior suggests a repeated disregard for the safety of others. A defendant’s history of similar misconduct can significantly influence a decision on punitive damages.
  • Profit– Whether the defendant profited from their misconduct can influence the decision to award punitive damages.
  • Ability to pay – Whether the defendant can reasonably pay punitive damages leveled against them plays a role in decision-making. The monetary punishment should be realistic given their financial situation.

Limits On Punitive Damages in North Carolina

North Carolina law limits punitive damages for defendants to $250,000 or three times the compensatory damages the plaintiff receives, whichever is the largest.

However, North Carolina exempts severe car accidents involving intoxicated drivers from the state cap on punitive damages. This exception means punitive damages in drunk driving car accidents could exceed what the limitation typically mandates.

Get in Touch with our Car Accident Attorneys in North Carolina

If you sustained car accident injuries because of someone else’s especially reckless behavior, talk to a North Carolina car accident attorney immediately. They can investigate the accident, determine a fair value for your losses, and evaluate whether punitive damages could be available in your case.

At Younce, Vtipil, Baznik & Banks, P.A., we help injured North Carolinians put their lives back together after car crashes. With our state-of-the-art case tracking system and dedication to every client, you’ll feel our support and guidance throughout the car accident claim process. Contact us online or call 919-661-9000 for your free case review.

About the Author

Younce, Vtipil, Baznik & Banks, P.A.
At Younce, Vtipil, Baznik & Banks, P.A., our clients work closely with a legal team that is dedicated to providing outstanding client service and unflinching legal representation. The majority of our attorneys and support staff have worked with our firm for many years.

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