A Richland County jury awarded a victim over $1,000,000 in punitive damages to “send a message” about the dangers of drinking and driving.
Jami Owens received $89,000 in compensatory damages and $1,000,001 in punitive damages after James Boulware, an intoxicated motorist who had one prior DUI, crashed into her vehicle after a University of South Carolina football game in October 2011. Ms. Owen’s attorney had asked for $1,000,000 in punitive damages.
Mr. Boulware’s attorney declined comment.
Damages are designed to compensate the victim both emotionally and financially with the idea that, to the greatest extent possible, the victim’s life will be the same after the car crash as it was before the collision took place. These damages nearly always take the form of monetary compensation, because that is about the only kind of compensation that any court has the power to award.
One element in compensatory damages is property damage, including the cost to repair or replace the vehicle, damage to real property, like a house or fence, and replacement of any lost personal items. All these categories have something in common: these things have an emotional value as well as an economic one. In many cases, such as lost personal property or the loss of an older yet reliable vehicle, the former value (emotional) may well exceed the latter (financial). To determine the amount of property damages, the jury may consider both these elements.
General economic damages are more ascertainable, at least to some extent. Prior medical expenses and lost wages are fairly easy to calculate, although the insurance company often argues that the treatment the victim received was medically unnecessary or the victim could have found a lower-paying and less stressful job to partially mitigate damages.
Future lost wages and medical expenses are more difficult to calculate. In these instances, an attorney often partners with a doctor, accountant, or other expert witness to estimate these costs in a compelling way.
Finally, victims are entitled to noneconomic damages, in most cases. These intangible damages include compensation for:
- Pain and suffering,
- Loss of consortium (loss of assistance and companionship),
- Emotional distress, and
- Loss of enjoyment in life.
These items are valued based on the amount of economic damages, the facts of the case, the nature of the jury pool, and several other factors.
In South Carolina, these damages are capped at $500,000 or three times the amount of compensatory damages, whichever is greater. That cap does not apply if the defendant’s negligence also constituted a felony; in the above case, that felony was a DUI crash with serious injury.
To obtain punitive damages, the plaintiff must establish that the defendant’s conduct was wanton, willful and reckless. To determine the amount, the jury may consider a number of factors, including:
- Severity of harm;
- Prior similar conduct;
- Plaintiff’s contributory negligence, if any; and
- The deterrent value of punitive damages.
The plaintiff must establish reckless conduct by clear and convincing evidence.
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