Plaintiffs who file a personal injury lawsuit usually do so because they suffered a measurable loss. In some instances, the medical bills and wage loss is significant enough to justify the judge ordering compensatory damages. These financial awards serve to help the plaintiff recover tangible money lost in one way or another.

However, a plaintiff may move for further monetary awards that are more subjective. The driving forces behind these requests include pain, suffering, and other emotional losses due to the injuries caused by the defendant. Furthermore, the court may find the plaintiff’s plight, compelling enough to award damages above and beyond what the plaintiff requested.

Let’s explore how the courts may award punitive damages from car accidents with significant injuries.

Common Damages Awarded in a Car Accident Claim

A plaintiff files a personal injury lawsuit against the at-fault driver and the relevant insurance company. In this tort action, the plaintiff alleges the defendant exhibited a measure of negligence in the way he or she operated the vehicle. These are all examples of negligent driving:

  • Running a stop sign or red light
  • Excessive speed
  • Dangerous lane shifting
  • Distracted driving
  • Driving under the influence

Since the at-fault driver knew or should have known this behavior was contrary to safe driving practices and that there was a chance that the dangerous driving may lead to an accident, he or she is deemed negligent. Once that is established, the plaintiff needs to demonstrate how the accident impacted his or her life. Compensatory damages are awarded when the plaintiff proves that the injuries led to real losses. General damages get awarded when the plaintiff can show a measure of the suffering caused by the injury. These are the common damages courts award.

Basic Information About Punitive Damages

Punitive damages from a car accident are fueled by a much different standard. In personal injury tort, the court hears the evidence and determines the damages the plaintiff receives. Punitive damages are unique in that this award is not meant to compensate the driver for what was lost, but to punish the defendant and discourage others from acting the same way the defendant did.

A personal injury lawsuit goes through the civil court system and cannot result in jail time. The court’s recourse when it deems the defendant’s behavior egregious and heinous is to hand down a punitive damages award. The sum of this award typically does not exceed four times the amount of compensatory damages.

Required Findings for a Punitive Award

When the judge orders punitive damages, it is meant to send a message to dissuade the defendant and anyone else from ever acting similarly again. There are a few key factors the court may use to determine if the defendant’s actions rose to the level of negligence that warrants a punitive award:

  •       The intent behind the act that led to the crash
  •       The level of disregard for the safety of the public
  •       The severity of the injuries the plaintiff suffered

The judge may also seek legal precedence in awarding punitive damages. If similar cases resulted in an extraordinary award, the court might follow suit in the immediate case.

Punitive damages from a car accident are not the most common type of award, but they do occur.