In an injury lawsuit, there are often two kinds of damages: Compensatory and punitive.
Compensatory damages are those incurred by plaintiff for actual losses. These can range from medical bills and lost wages to pain and suffering and loss of life enjoyment. They are not necessarily tangible, but the goal is to restore those injured to whatever extent that’s possible.
Punitive damages, meanwhile, are those intended to punish defendant. It’s still the plaintiff who benefits from these damages, but whether plaintiff may seek them has little to do with his or her injuries and more to do with the egregiousness of defendant’s conduct. Punitive damages are often far in excess of compensatory damages, particularly if defendant is a larger entity.
Whether a plaintiff is even allowed to seek punitive damages is a question answered by the trial court prior to trial. The burden of proof is on plaintiff to show defendant’s actions rise to a level that would warrant such punishment.
In Alabama, Ala. Code 6-11-20 holds punitive damages may not be awarded in any civil action except in a wrongful death tort where plaintiff proves by a standard of clear and convincing evidence defendant acted consciously or deliberately with oppression, fraud, malice or wantonness.
State laws vary on when punitive damages are applicable, but most jurisdictions do require court approval before plaintiff can pursue such damages.
In the recent case of Cain v. Lee, the issue of punitive damages was weighed on appeal before the Virginia Supreme Court.
According to court records, a mother and her two daughters were in slow-moving traffic, the mother behind the wheel, when a driver barreled up behind them, failed to slow and rear-ended them. The force of impact pushed them into a vehicle in front of them. No serious injuries were reported, though they did complain of general soreness.
A state trooper responding to the scene suspected at-fault driver was drunk and administered field sobriety tests, which he failed. A preliminary breath-alcohol test revealed his blood-alcohol concentration to be 0.24 – three times the legal limit of 0.08.
Plaintiffs filed a personal injury action against defendant. As he did not have insurance, plaintiff’s auto insurance company was also named. Each plaintiff sought $25,000 in compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages.
Defendant later got a second DUI, entered into an alcohol diversion program, but failed mandatory random breath tests four times and was expelled from the program and required to serve his full jail sentence.
Insurer sought to suppress evidence of the second DUI conviction and expulsion from the diversion program, a request the trial court granted.
At trial, the court allowed an instruction regarding punitive damages indicating the disfavored nature of them. Plaintiffs objected, arguing the instruction wasn’t an accurate statement of law.
Jurors ultimately awarded $5,000 in compensatory damages to two of plaintiffs and $2,000 for another, plus $500 each in punitive damages.
Plaintiffs appealed, arguing the instruction to the jury had been improper. The Virginia Supreme Court agreed and reversed. However, on the issue of post-accident evidence, the court ruled that was properly omitted and should be again in the second trial.
Call Allred & Allred P.C. at 334.396.9200 to speak with a Montgomery personal injury lawyer.
Cain v. Lee, June 4, 2015, Virginia Supreme Court
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Connors v. GEICO – Pedestrian Accident Compensation, May 8, 2015, Montgomery Injury Lawyer Blog