Understanding Punitive Damages in an Automobile Accident Case

August 30, 2015

In the civil division of the law, there are a number of remedies available to victims in an automobile accident. Not only can an injured motorist receive monetary compensation to fix any property damage caused by the accident, but he can also receive monetary compensation for medical bills, both present and expected, resulting from the auto accident, as well as damages for pain and suffering. While these remedies, known as compensatory damages, are aimed at returning the plaintiff to his former state, there is another type of court remedy that is available to victims in civil court.

Punitive Damages

Generally, punitive damages, or exemplary damages, are those damages ordered by the court that are intended to punish the defendant for his actions, and to, ideally, deter him from engaging in such activities again. As opposed to compensatory damages, where the recovery is based on how serious the injuries or associated costs are, punitive damages are based on the severity of the defendant’s actions.

Understandably, in some situations it can be easy for punitive damages to far exceed any compensatory damages awarded to the plaintiff. While the Supreme Court has acknowledged and recommended that punitive damages be restricted to reasonable limits, there are times, such as in the case of TXO Production Corp. v. Alliance Resources Corp., where the Supreme Court allowed punitive damages in excess of its own recommended limits, affirming an award of $10 million in spite of compensatory damages totaling $19,000. Just as federal courts regulate punitive damages within their own system, state courts also have their own rules regarding punitive damages.

Punitive Damages in SC

While some states rely on common law, or prior case law, others have enacted their punitive damage regulations in statute. South Carolina is one such state, and has its punitive law regulations listed under Section 15-32-520 of the South Carolina Code.  

Under Section 15-32-520, in order to be awarded punitive damages, plaintiffs must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the harm was done as a result of the defendant’s willful, reckless, or wanton conduct. In addition, a jury will determine if a defendant is liable for punitive damages, as well as the amount of said punitive damages. When determining how much to award punitive damages, a jury may consider several factors, including:

  • the defendant’s degree of culpability;
  • the existence of past similar conduct;
  • the severity of the harm caused by the defendant;
  • the profitability of the conduct to the defendant; and,
  • the likelihood the award will deter the defendant, or others, from similar conduct.

In addition, South Carolina has placed further restrictions on punitive damages, with Section 15-32-530 of the South Carolina Code stating that punitive damages will be limited to no more than either three times the compensatory damage award, or $500,000. However, there are some situations in which a court may allow punitive damages that exceed these amounts. The cap on punitive damages may be exceeded when the court finds:

  • that the defendant intended to harm and that his conduct did in fact harm the plaintiff;
  • that the defendant has pled guilty to, or been convicted of, a felony arising out of the same act or course of conduct complained of by the plaintiff; or
  • that the defendant was under the influence of drugs or alcohol to the point that the defendant’s judgment is substantially impaired.

Contact an Attorney

If you or a loved one has been injured by the actions of another motorist, the last thing you might want to deal with is worrying about how you will recover any damages incurred. It is at these times that an experienced attorney can prove to be a valuable asset. If you are looking for a skilled attorney to provide you with representation, contact the David Aylor Law Offices for a free case evaluation today.

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