After a car accident, victims can be compensated for a variety of damages, but the most common types of compensation are for out-of-pocket expenses due to the accident, and for pain and suffering. In some cases, however, the at-fault driver acted egregiously: driving while incredibly intoxicated or intentionally trying to harm the victim. In these cases, punitive damages--which intend to punish the at-fault driver--may also be in order. Although punitive damages can be hard to come by, in certain cases the victim should demand them. Below I’ll tell you about how this works and when a Passaic County car accident lawyer could be helpful to you.
Does My Case Qualify for Punitive Damages?
After an accident, under New Jersey law victims can be compensated for a variety of expenses they have incurred due to their accident, including both economic and non-economic damages. Economic damages compensate victims for out-of-pocket costs they have incurred, and include things like medical bills, lost wages because you are unable to go to work, the cost of future medical care, and the loss of future earnings.
The other types of damages are known as non-economic damages, which compensate victims for pain and suffering they have endured due to the accident. They differ from economic damages because they are not easy to put a dollar value on. Mental anguish, pain and suffering, and loss of consortium with a partner are some of the damages that fall under this category.
This brings us to punitive damages, which are in place not to compensate the victim for their injuries and suffering, but to punish the defendant for reckless conduct. Punitive damages are seen as a way to prevent the defendant from exhibiting the same bad conduct in the future. They are awarded in very few cases, and are reserved for those where punishing the victim is seen as a necessary deterrent.
In car accidents, punitive damages may be awarded when a driver’s behavior is especially reckless. Under law, however, what is considered reckless can be relative. For example, if a driver causes an accident while under the extreme influence of drugs or alcohol, for example, with a very high alcohol content, this may result in punitive damages being awarded. If, however, the driver is only slightly over the legal limit, and their drinking cannot be necessarily determined as the cause of the accident, they may not be awarded. As another example, if the at-fault driver willingly drove with non-working brakes or another mechanical issue that then resulted in the accident, depending on the degree of disrepair, punitive damages could be awarded. In another scenario, a driver who caused an accident by drag racing another car--a clearly reckless act--could be required to pay punitive damages.
In a nutshell, the defendant’s behavior must be especially reckless to warrant punitive damages. However, it is hard to know what kind of behavior qualifies without consulting with a car accident lawyer. Because an experienced personal injury lawyer will have significant experience with these types of cases, they can give you a clearer sense of whether the at-fault driver’s behavior warrants these damages.
How Punitive Damages are Determined
As with any personal injury case, in cases involving punitive damages the plaintiff must prove through evidence that the defendant’s malicious actions resulted in the harm they experienced. Under the New Jersey Punitive Damages Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:15-5.9, punitive damages are capped at the greater of $350,000 or five times the compensatory damages that were awarded.
Before awarding, a jury will consider several things. For one, they will decide how likely it was that serious harm would have resulted from the defendant’s actions. If it was not likely, they may decide punitive damages are not warranted. They will also consider whether the defendant was aware that they could have caused this much harm, and how they responded if they became aware that they could. Clearly, if the at-fault driver was aware that they could seriously harm someone and acted egregiously anyway (such as by drag racing), this could be good cause for awarding punitive damages. Other factors they will look at include whether the defendant is in a financial position to pay.
When to Seek Legal Help
If you were harmed in an accident due to another person’s egregious actions, it is possible that you are entitled to collect punitive damages. The best way to find out is to discuss your case with a Passaic County car accident attorney.
Bavagnoli & Bavagnoli offers free consultations. During our conversation, we can tell you more about your rights and the best course of action for your case. We believe in fighting for victims’ rights and holding the at-fault party responsible for their actions, and we will fight for you too.
Contact us today at (973) 785-9522 to discuss your case.