PUNITIVE DAMAGES IN PERSONAL INJURY CASES

When someone gets injured in an accident or suffers damages due to someone’s either negligent, or intentional acts, a legal action can be the first step to get the fair compensation from the wrongdoer. In some cases, the wrongdoer’s acts are not just wrong, they are outrageous, wanton, or even worse, intentional, deliberate, or done with malice. In the latter case, in addition to the compensatory damages, the victim may be also entitled to punitive damages.  Punitive damages are awarded not to compensate the victim, but to make sure that the wrongdoer is adequately punished and that the conduct, for which the wrongdoer was punished, would be deterred in the society.

Punitive damages are attractive in any civil litigation, because they can be several times greater than the amount of the compensatory damages. There is no automatic right to punitive damages and, in many cases, the jury can deny those damages at its discretion. Some jurisdictions have put a cap, the maximum possible amount, to the award of such damages.  Finally, the elements of pleading punitive damages and the standard of proof vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. To get the punitive damages, one must prove the necessary elements satisfying the standards set by the given jurisdiction.

Punitive Damages in Virginia:

The first thing to note about punitive damages in Virginia is that it has a cap – $350,000. Punitive damages are not allowed in cases of breach of contract in Virginia.  To get punitive damages, one must show that the wrongdoer acted with actual malice (ill intent), or the actions amounted to willful and wanton disregard to the rights of others. It is not easy to satisfy this high bar because punitive damages, by design, are to punish and deter especially egregious conduct to maintain the safety of the society.

Virginia by statute has made it easier to go after drunk drivers for punitive damages.  Virginia has enacted a statute – Virginia Code § 8.01-44.5 – which establishes that:

A defendant’s conduct shall be deemed sufficiently willful or wanton as to show a conscious disregard for the rights of others when the evidence proves that (i) when the incident causing the injury or death occurred, the defendant had a blood alcohol concentration or 0.15 percent or more . . .; (ii) at the time the defendant began drinking alcohol, or during the time he was drinking alcohol, he knew or should have known that his ability to operate a motor vehicle . . . would be impaired . . . and; (iii) the defendant’s intoxication was a proximate cause of the injury to or death of the plaintiff.

While the fact finder of the trial, whether jury or judge (at a bench trial), still has the full discretion to award or deny punitive damages, the above noted code section allows to award punitive damages, upon showing that the defendant had at least 0.15 blood alcohol concentration during the accident he or she caused.

Under Virginia Code § 38.2-227, it is not against public policy to purchase an insurance policy to cover for the punitive damages for negligence, including willful and wanton negligence, but the Virginia laws do not allow insurance coverage for the intentional acts.  This means that, it is likely that the insurance will cover punitive damages in a car accident case, but the insurance policy will not extend to the acts committed purposely and knowingly by the wrongdoer.

Virginia allows punitive damages in a common law civil conspiracy cause of action when the wrongdoers conspired to accomplish some criminal or unlawful purpose causing injuries to their victim and the wrongdoer’s actions were willful and malicious. In addition, by statute, Virginia Code Sections 18.2-499 and 18.2-500  allow criminal and civil causes of actions when “any two or more persons combine, associate, agree, mutually undertake or concert together to injure others in their reputation, trade, business or profession…” and recover treble damages (three times the amount of the actual damages) against the wrongdoers.  The claimant must show that the defendants had a mutual undertaking or a concerted action with the purpose of causing willful and malicious injury to the plaintiff.

Punitive Damages in Maryland:

Unlike in Virginia, there is no statutory cap on an award of punitive damages in Maryland with the exception of medical malpractice cases. Bowden v. Caldor, 350 Md. 4, 710 A.2d 267 (1998).  However, it is more difficult to establish grounds for obtaining punitive damages in Maryland.

Punitive damages in Maryland are allowed in personal injury cases if the defendant’s actions are deliberate, and/or are based on an evil motive or intent to cause the injury.  The exact language used by the Maryland Court of Appeals to describe this important element is actual malice, “in the sense of conscious and deliberate wrongdoing, evil or wrongful motive, intent to injure, ill will or fraud.” Scott v. Jenkins, 345 Md. 21, 690 A.2d 1000 (1997). Tierco Maryland, Inc. v. Williams, 381 Md. 378, 849 A.2d 504 (2004); Garcia v. Foulger Pratt, 155 Md. App. 634, 845 A.2d 16 (2003).

This rule applies to both intentional torts, like civil assault and battery claims, as well as negligence claims (often personal injury arising out of car accident cases).   The claimant must show by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant acted deliberately, with evil or wrongful motive to injure. Owens-Illinois v. Zenobia, 325 Md. 420, 601 A.2d 633 (1992); Garcia v. Foulger Pratt, 155 Md. App. 634, 845 A.2d 16 (2003).

Claimant should establish some compensatory damages before obtaining any punitive damages.  Caldor v. Bowden, 330 Md. 632, 625 A.2d 959 (1993). And even then, Maryland law gives the jury the sole discretion to award or deny punitive damages to the claimants regardless of how overwhelming the evidence is to establish the necessary grounds for punitive damages. Philip Morris, Inc. v. Angeletti, 358 Md. 689, 752 A.2d 200 (2000).

In an automobile negligence case, an award of punitive damages can only be based upon a showing of actual malice as defined in Owens-Illinois v. Zenobia, i.e., an act characterized by “evil motive, intent to injure, ill will or fraud.” Komornik v. Sparks, 331 Md. 720, 629 A.2d 721 (1993). Unlike Virginia, Maryland law has no automatic statutory provisions allowing punitive damages claims based on the blood alcohol level of a drunk driver.  In a drunk driver case, victims still have to establish “evil motive, intent to injure, ill will or fraud” in order to get the courts award punitive damages against the defendant.

Punitive Damages in District of Columbia (Washington DC):

District of Columbia requires to show willful and outrageous conduct, gross fraud, or evil motive, active malice and deliberate violence or oppression by the wrongdoer to recover punitive damages.

In order for an award of punitive damages to be sustained, the conduct must:

• be “willful and outrageous,” see Spar v. Obwoya, 369 A.2d 173, 180 (D.C. App. 1977); Harris v. Wagshal, 343 A.2d 283, 288 (D.C. App. 1975);

• constitute “gross fraud,” see Spar, 369 A.2d at 180; Franklin Inv. Co. v. Homburg, 252 A.2d 95, 98 (D.C. App. 1969);

• or be “aggravated by ‘evil motive, active malice, deliberate violence or oppression,’“ see Price v. Griffin, 359 A.2d 582, 589 (D.C. App. 1976).

The reasonableness of a punitive damages award is determined by three “guideposts”: (1) the reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct; (2) the difference between the actual or potential harm suffered by the plaintiff and the punitive damages award; and (3) the difference between the punitive damages and any potential civil or criminal penalties. Chatman v. Lawlor, 831 A.2d 395, 405 (D.C. 2003).

If you’ve been hurt because of someone else’s negligence, you have the right to a financial compensation for your damages and injuries. If the wrongdoer’s actions are accompanied with wanton, willful disregard to your rights, malice, deliberate violence, you can additionally recover punitive damages. Our experienced personal injury lawyers can help you obtain compensatory and punitive damages, but more importantly we can help you make a convincing presentation of your case, so that the compensation for your injuries is maximized.

When you are injured in a traffic accident, you may be asking – how much money will I get from insurance in a car accident? You may want to know if punitive damages can be awarded, because of possible aggravating factors, such as a drunk driver or intoxicated driver.  What should I do to maximize my insurance compensation?  Is the insurance company acting in bad faith?  Should I file a personal injury lawsuit?  When to file a lawsuit in a traffic accident case?  Should I give a recorded statement to the insurance company? Should I hire a personal injury lawyer?  Give us a call for an absolutely free consultation with a personal injury/traffic accident lawyer now: +1-703-527-1779.

I.S. Law Firm will represent you on a contingency basis—that means you pay no legal fees until we recover money for you.  Call is for a free consultation and case evaluation: +1-703-527-1779.

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