Can You Get Punitive Damages in a Car Accident Case?

June 4, 2024 Vehicle Wrecks

Can You Get Punitive Damages in a Car Accident Case? A Comprehensive Guide

A Detailed Look at Punitive Damages in a Car Accident Case, Including a State-by-State Table of Laws

Types of Damages You Can Win
What Are Exemplary Damages in a Car Accident Case?
How Does the Law Define Punitive Damages?
Car Crash Cases in Which You Might Get Punitive Damages
When Can You Get Punitive Damages After a Car Accident?
How Will an Attorney Prove Punitive Damages in a Car Wreck?
How Much Is a Claim for Punitive Damages in a Car Accident Worth?
Limitations on Punitive Damages in a Car Accident Case
Added Factors that May Increase the Amount of Punitive Damages
TABLE: State Laws Governing Punitive Damages in a Car Accident Case
Exemplary Damages Laws in Texas
Get Help Seeking Exemplary Damages in Texas after Your Car Accident

Depending on the circumstances, you may be able to get punitive damages in a car accident case. Punitive damages may be awarded in car accident injury claims when the at-fault driver or other party was grossly negligent in their actions. When someone is grossly negligent, it means that they had little or no regard for the safety and well-being of others.

Punitive damages also may apply in a car accident case if the negligent party acted with malice. The laws regarding punitive damages in injury cases vary from state to state, but a general understanding of how punitive damages may apply to your car accident case can provide a helpful foundation to then learn about each state’s laws, including those in Texas. Below, we include a table with state-by-state information regarding punitive damage laws in car accident cases.

See the table: Car Accident Punitive Damages Laws by State

Types of Damages You Can Win

There are three main types of damages in a car accident case: compensatory damages, which include economic and non-economic damages, and punitive damages, also termed “exemplary damages.” Compensatory damages relate to the losses you suffered as a result of your car accident. Economic damages cover costs that are easy to measure, like medical bills or lost income from not being able to work. Non-economic damages compensate for things like emotional distress from disfigurement or chronic physical pain. Exemplary, or punitive, damages are different. They are meant to punish wrongdoers for their grossly negligent or intentionally harmful behavior. These types of damages are also meant to discourage others from similar misdeeds.

What Are Exemplary Damages in a Car Accident Case?

Exemplary damages are simply a legal term that encompasses punitive damages. You might think of them as damages that “make an example of” the party whose actions were so malicious or grossly negligent that a punitive damage award will serve as a deterrent to others. One, if not the only, intent of these damages is punishment. For example, if a person who is so drunk that they struggle to walk or see clearly gets behind the wheel, they will likely be considered grossly negligent. If that excessively drunk driver then proceeds to careen past a school at a high rate of speed as children are heading home and kills a child, a jury may want to award exemplary damages as a message to others who may potentially drive drunk. There are other factors in a case like this, but this is one scenario many lawmakers would like to prevent. That’s why several states’ statutes specifically address drunk driving as grounds for punitive damages.

How Does the Law Define Punitive Damages?

The important factors necessary for a punitive damages award in a car accident case are (1) harm resulting from egregious or malicious actions and (2) the need to send a deterring message to others. While many states have similar language in their laws, there are some differences. Here are a few examples that help you understand what acts may merit punitive damages. As you read these excerpts, consider other types of personal injury cases beyond car accidents, like a company that sells a product knowing it has a dangerous defect, or an insurer that denies a valid health insurance claim for cancer treatment. In some cases, the sole intent of punitive damages is to punish the defendant rather than to provide compensation to the injured party.

Alabama: “It is proved by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant consciously or deliberately engaged in oppression, fraud, wantonness, or malice with regard to the plaintiff.”

Alaska: The act “was outrageous, including acts done with malice or bad motives; or evidenced reckless indifference to the interest of another person.”

Arizona: In a 1986 decision in Rawlings v. Apodaca, the Arizona Supreme Court focused on the act, rather than intent. It required presence of an “evil hand” to prove injury of a victim, but did not require an “evil mind.”

California: Punitive damages apply “where it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant has been guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice.”

Georgia: The “defendant’s actions showed willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, oppression, or that entire want of care which would raise the presumption of conscious indifference to consequences.” Punitive damages “shall be awarded not as compensation to a plaintiff but solely to punish, penalize, or deter a defendant.”

Michigan: In the Peisner v. Detroit Free Press case, “exemplary damages” were awarded to compensate the plaintiff for mental anguish, humiliation, outrage, or increased injury to the plaintiff’s feelings that he or she suffered due to the defendant’s willful, malicious, or wanton conduct or reckless disregard for the plaintiff’s rights.

Car Crash Cases in Which You Might Get Punitive Damages

If someone is simply distracted or careless when driving and causes a crash, even if it’s a bad one, you probably won’t be able to get punitive damages. That careless behavior wouldn’t rise to the level of gross negligence. So, when can you get punitive damages in a car accident case? Here are some general examples of the kinds of crashes in which juries might award punitive damages:

  • In drunk or drugged driving cases
  • In hit-and-run injury accidents
  • When crashes are caused by street racing, playing chicken, or exhibiting other extremely dangerous behavior
  • When wrecks are due to excessive speeding or other extremely reckless driving
  • If someone intentionally causes a car accident that results in injury
  • When drivers knowingly operate cars with badly malfunctioning brakes or other parts.

Other parties, besides a driver, can also be defendants in a car accident case that merits punitive damages. Auto manufacturers and auto parts makers who don’t fix defective designs in their products may also be held liable for punitive damages in accident cases. Punitive damages might be pursued against trucking companies if they knowingly push drivers to the point of fatigue, even though they know it increases the risk of accidents, and accidents occur.

When Can You Get Punitive Damages After a Car Accident?

If your car accident case goes to court and your attorney successfully proves the defendant was negligent and at fault, you can win a monetary award as compensation for the damages you suffered. There are many factors that influence when you can get punitive damages in a car accident case, including the skill of your attorney, the type and extent of injuries you suffered, the jury’s decision and, finally, the jury’s and judge’s decision on whether punitive damages are appropriate in your car accident case. That decision must rely on the language of the state’s laws to describe what type of acts may lead to punitive damages.

Tallying the full monetary losses you suffered and calculating your non-economic damages is part of the process. For an attorney to successfully litigate a case takes experience and detailed knowledge of personal injury law.

Successfully arguing that your car accident case also merits punitive damages requires a highly skilled lawyer with thorough understanding of the standard of proof for such an award.

It is also imperative to understand not only the state laws regarding punitive damages in a car accident case, but prior case law, too. Precedent set by earlier cases may inform how much a jury could potentially award in punitive damages. The judge has the final decision on the amount and may not agree with what the jury awarded.

How Will an Attorney Prove Punitive Damages in a Car Wreck?

Attorneys will pursue all the evidence to prove punitive damages in a car wreck. This can include reviewing police reports, witness statements, digital evidence, crash angles, and a variety of other things. In many cases, it will also involve bringing in expert witnesses to testify on your behalf.

Punitive damages are among the most difficult damages to prove. For this reason, it’s always smart to have an experienced lawyer handle your case. An attorney can advise you about whether you might be able to get punitive damages in your unique car accident case. If they believe you can, they know what kind of intricate evidence is necessary to make the distinction between negligence and gross negligence to the court.

How Much Is a Claim for Punitive Damages in a Car Accident Worth?

All the circumstances in your case will be considered as your lawyer decides how much your punitive damages could be worth. Your attorney will need to compile all available information to prove why a jury should award that amount and why a judge should agree. The information that impacts the amount of punitive damages will include the details of the accident gathered from interviewing witnesses, review of the police report, other available evidence, and how badly you were injured. Your lawyer may even rely on expert witnesses to help determine the extent of punitive damages that are appropriate.

Because punitive damages relate to gross negligence and malice, your attorney (and, later, the jury and judge) will base their decision on how grossly negligent, or malicious, the at-fault party was in causing your injuries. In deciding on punitive damages, the court will also consider things such as the character of the at-fault party, how much they have in assets and property, and whether other victims might be harmed if they aren’t punished. Another consideration is how strong the message of punishment should be that is communicated by the amount.

When you’re bringing a claim for the injuries you’ve suffered because of someone else’s extremely reckless actions, don’t hesitate to get help.

Limitations on Punitive Damages in a Car Accident Case

Perhaps the most important factor in the amount of punitive damages you can win is your state’s limitations on the amount, if such a cap exists. The majority of states do limit how much you can get in punitive damages. Often, those limitations depend on the amount of compensatory damages awarded. Sometimes, there is a specific dollar amount that cannot be exceeded. And in a few states, the total amount may not be limited, but the distribution of the award does not go solely to the plaintiff. In the case of Alaska, 50% of the punitive damages award goes to the general fund of the state. In Utah, the injured party receives the first $50,000 of punitive damages and any amount above that is divided 50/50 with the state government. As another example, Oregon has no cap on punitive damages, but punitive damages awards are divided up between the car accident victim and the state: 30% goes to the plaintiff, no more than 20% can go to attorney fees, 60% goes into the Criminal Injuries Compensation Account, and 10% gets deposited into the State Court Facilities and Security Account (Or. Rev. Stat. § 31.735(1)).

In our table below, you can see which states do and do not have limitations on punitive damages. [“table below” will link]

Added Factors that May Increase the Amount of Punitive Damages

Some car accident cases have added circumstances that may raise the limitation on punitive damages. For example, if wanton recklessness led to a fatal accident, that act of gross negligence could be found to have caused a wrongful death. This type of personal injury claim is unique from other car accident cases. Depending on the state, the amount of punitive damages in a car accident wrongful death case may have no limitation, or there may be a higher cap.

One State’s Example: Texas Punitive Damages Cap

If you live in the state, you may wonder, what is the Texas punitive damages cap? Texas has clear limitations on the amount of punitive damages you can pursue in a car accident case. Punitive damages are capped at the greater of:

  • $200,000, or
  • Twice the amount of your economic damages plus the amount equal to your non-economic damages of up to $750,000.

Punitive damages caps in Texas don’t apply if the accident that caused your injuries was a felony (See Tex. C.P.R.C. §41.003 and §41.008).

State Laws Governing Punitive Damages in a Car Accident Case

STATE Punitive Damages Available Statute or Case Limitation or Cap
Alabama Yes Ala. Code §6-11-20 Yes
Alaska Yes Alaska Stat. §09-17-020 Yes
Arizona Yes Rawlings v. Apodaca (1986) No
Arkansas Yes Ark. Code §16-555-206 Yes
California Yes Cal. CC 3294 No
Colorado Yes CO Rev. Stat §13-21-102 Yes
Connecticut Yes Various statutes apply. See CUTPA Yes
Delaware Yes Del. Jury Instructions §22-27 No
Florida Yes Fla. Stat. §768.72 No
Georgia Yes O.C.G.A. §51-12-5.1 No
Hawaii Yes Ditto v. McCurdy No
Idaho Yes Idaho Code §6-1601 Yes
Illinois Yes ILCS §2-604.1 No
Indiana Yes Ind. Code  §34-51-3 Yes
Iowa Yes Iowa Code  §668A.1 No
Kansas Yes Kan. Stat. §60-3701 Yes
Kentucky Yes KRS §411.184 No
Louisiana Yes La. Civ. Code  2315.4 No
Maine Yes Braley v. Berkshire Mutual Insurance (1982) Only in Wrongful Death cases – MRS §14-8105
Maryland Yes MD CJP § 10-913 No
Massachusetts Yes; only authorized by statute Mass. Gen. Laws 229 §2 (wrongful death); International Fid. Ins. Co. v. Wilson (1983) No
Michigan Yes Peisner v. Detroit Free Press (1984),  McPeak v. McPeak (1999) No
Minnesota Yes Minn. Stat. §549.20 No
Mississippi Yes MS Code §11-1-65 Yes
Missouri Yes Mo. Rev. Stat. §510.261 No
Montana Yes Mont. Code  §27-1-221 Yes
Nebraska No Unconstitutional, see Neb. Constitution VII-5
Nevada Yes NRS §42.005, §42.010 Yes
New Hampshire No N.H. Rev. Stat. § 507:16
New Jersey Yes N.J. Stat. v§ 2A:15-5.13 Yes, except DUI cases
New Mexico Yes Sunnyland Farms, Inc. v. Central N.M. Elec. Co-op., Inc. (2013) No
New York Yes Ross v. Louise Wise Services (2006) No
North Carolina Yes N.C. Gen. Stat. §1D Yes
North Dakota Yes N.D.C.C. § 32-03.2-11 No
Ohio Yes Ohio Rev. Code §2315.21 Yes
Oklahoma Yes Okla. Stat. §23.9-1 Yes
Oregon Yes Or. Rev. Stat. § 31.730 No
Pennsylvania Yes Feld v. Merriam (1983) & Restatement of Torts Sec. 908 No, except when PA govt. employee is driver
Rhode Island Yes R.I. Gen. Laws § 28-5-29.1 Yes
South Carolina Yes S.C. Code Ann. § 15-32-510 Yes
South Dakota Yes S.D. Codified Laws § 21-3-2 No
Tennessee Yes Tenn. Code § 29- 39-104 Yes, with exceptions
Texas Yes Tex. C.P.R.C. §41.003 Yes
Utah Yes Utah Code Ann. § 78B-8-201 No
Vermont Yes 13 V.S.A. § 1457 No
Virginia Yes Va. Code § 8.01-44.5 Yes
Washington No n/a No
West Virginia Yes Jordan v. Jenkins (2021) No
Wisconsin Yes Wis. Stat. Ann. § 895.043 Yes, except DUI cases
Wyoming Yes Adel v. Parkhurst (1984) No

Exemplary Damages Laws in Texas

Each state is different, but a look at the full language of Texas laws regarding exemplary damages that may apply to a car accident case are a helpful illustration of the wording. The below is the text of the Texas statutes related to exemplary, or punitive, damages that apply to civil cases involving serious injuries.

Sec. 41.001. DEFINITIONS. 

(5)  “Exemplary damages” means any damages awarded as a penalty or by way of punishment but not for compensatory purposes. Exemplary damages are neither economic nor noneconomic damages. ‘Exemplary damages’ includes punitive damages.

Sec. 41.003.  STANDARDS FOR RECOVERY OF EXEMPLARY DAMAGES.  

(a)  Except as provided by Subsection (c), exemplary damages may be awarded only if the claimant proves by clear and convincing evidence that the harm with respect to which the claimant seeks recovery of exemplary damages results from:

(1)  fraud;

(2)  malice;  or

(3)  gross negligence.

(b)  The claimant must prove by clear and convincing evidence the elements of exemplary damages as provided by this section.  This burden of proof may not be shifted to the defendant or satisfied by evidence of ordinary negligence, bad faith, or a deceptive trade practice.

(c)  If the claimant relies on a statute establishing a cause of action and authorizing exemplary damages in specified circumstances or in conjunction with a specified culpable mental state, exemplary damages may be awarded only if the claimant proves by clear and convincing evidence that the damages result from the specified circumstances or culpable mental state.

(d)  Exemplary damages may be awarded only if the jury was unanimous in regard to finding liability for and the amount of exemplary damages.

(e)  In all cases where the issue of exemplary damages is submitted to the jury, the following instruction shall be included in the charge of the court:

“You are instructed that, in order for you to find exemplary damages, your answer to the question regarding the amount of such damages must be unanimous.”

Sec. 41.008.  LIMITATION ON AMOUNT OF RECOVERY.  

(a)  In an action in which a claimant seeks recovery of damages, the trier of fact shall determine the amount of economic damages separately from the amount of other compensatory damages.

(b)  Exemplary damages awarded against a defendant may not exceed an amount equal to the greater of:

(1)(A) two times the amount of economic damages;  plus

(B)  an amount equal to any noneconomic damages found by the jury, not to exceed $750,000;  or

(2)  $200,000.

Get Help Seeking Exemplary Damages in Texas after Your Car Accident

When the Standards of Proof Are Complex, You Need an Experienced Attorney

Filing a car accident lawsuit is often complicated. When you are seeking punitive damages along with compensation you need to pay for your medical bills, lost income, and pain and suffering, it becomes even more so. The bar is higher to prove punitive damages than it is for other damages.

Successfully proving a car accident case, especially one that involves gross negligence or malice, is an involved process that relies on a high degree of legal knowledge. Seeking exemplary damages in Texas requires the help of a highly experienced attorney who has litigated prior car accident cases.

At Terry Bryant Accident & Injury Law in Houston, our attorneys have extensive experience in winning punitive damages for clients who have been injured due to egregious negligence. For a free consultation about your case, call us now at (713) 973-8888 or toll-free 1 (800) 444-5000. We look forward to helping you understand what damages you may be able to ask for when you’ve been negligently injured in a car or other motor vehicle crash.

Attorney Terry Bryant

Attorney Terry BryantTerry Bryant is Board Certified in personal injury trial law, which means his extensive knowledge of the law has been recognized by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, setting him apart from many other injury attorneys. The 22 years he spent as a Municipal Judge, Spring Valley Village, TX also provides him keen insight into the Texas court system. That experience also helps shape his perspective on personal injury cases and how they might resolve. This unique insight benefits his clients. [ Attorney Bio ]

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