Are Punitive Damages Possible In a Car Accident Case?

A car accident case won't include a claim for punitive damages unless the at-fault driver's conduct far exceeds run-of-the-mill "negligence."

By , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

The short answer to this question is that in most car accident claims, you won't be seeking punitive damages from the at-fault driver. But as with most general rules, there are exceptions.

In this article, we'll explain the difference between "compensatory" and "punitive" damages in an injury case, and we'll look at some of the rare instances where the plaintiff in a car accident lawsuit might be entitled to punitive damages from a grossly negligent or reckless driver.

Damages In Car Accident Cases: The Basics

In the realm of personal injury law (which governs car accident cases), "damages" are all of the injured person's losses that can be linked to the at-fault party's misconduct, and which can be captured in a claim for compensation. Damages fall into one of two categories: compensatory and punitive.

Compensatory damages are divided into two additional categories:

  • "Special" or "economic" damages include the cost of medical treatment for car accident injuries, lost earnings and lost earning capacity (which include employment benefits), and other financial losses.
  • "General" or "non-economic" damages include pain and suffering and mental anguish, as well as what's called "loss of consortium" (harm to the spousal or parent-child relationship).

As for the other main category of damages...

What Are Punitive Damages?

Punitive damages are a special category of compensation after a personal injury. Punitive damages aren't compensatory, meaning they do not compensate the victim for any injuries or damages. Instead—and as the name suggests—punitive damages are awarded for the purpose of punishing the defendant wrongdoer (and possibly as a deterrent when it comes to the potential for similar behavior by others).

The appropriate amount of a punitive damages award is based on consideration of a number of common factors, including:

  • the character and nature of the defendant's conduct
  • how much the defendant has in the way of assets
  • how much harm other victims might suffer if this particular defendant is not punished, and
  • the actual harm suffered by the plaintiff in the incident that gave rise to the current case.

If There's No Lawsuit, There Are No Punitive Damages

It's important to note that you'd never ask for (or be awarded) punitive damages as part of a car insurance claim. These kinds of damages are only available in court, usually after a jury has handed down a verdict in the plaintiff's favor, in the rare event that a car accident lawsuit actually goes all the way to trial. And even then, punitive damages are only awarded in the rarest of cases. All of this brings us to our next logical question.

When Is a Car Accident Plaintiff Entitled to Punitive Damages?

Not all states allow personal injury plaintiffs to collect punitive damages. Some states only allow compensatory damages no matter how egregious the defendant's conduct might be. In order to find out if your state even allows for the possibility of punitive damages in a personal injury case, you need to do some legal research or contact a personal injury lawyer in your state.

But, as a general rule, punitive damages may not be awarded if the defendant's conduct amounted to mere negligence. In other words, simply acting carelessly or unreasonably will not subject a defendant to punitive damages. Instead, the type of behavior that is required to subject a defendant to punitive damages has different names in different states, but is generally referred to as:

  • gross negligence
  • recklessness
  • malice, or
  • willful or wanton disregard for the safety of others.

Gross Negligence, Recklessness, and Willful or Wanton Behavior

Again, the exact definition will differ from state to state, but, in general, grossly negligent, reckless, or wanton actions are far more "unreasonable" than negligent actions. A grossly negligent, reckless, or wanton action is one that a person knows (or should know) is inherently dangerous and/or likely to result in harm to someone else.

Willful behavior means intentional behavior, so some states may limit punitive damages to situations where the defendant acted intentionally (as with assault and other intentional torts).

Let's take a couple of examples of grossly negligent or reckless behavior in the context of car accidents. The game of "chicken" is a good place to start. Chicken is played when two cars drive at each other at high speed. The first driver to swerve "loses." Of course, one or both drivers may lose control of their vehicles and crash, or the vehicles could collide head-on. Making the decision to engage in a game of "chicken" is beyond ordinary negligence and could amount to gross negligence or recklessness.

Drunk driving or driving under the influence can be a close call. A driver who passes out at the wheel and causes an accident is probably going to be deemed reckless, but what about the driver whose blood alcohol content is just over the state's limit, and whose intoxication can't definitively be said to have caused the crash? That driver might not be found reckless.

A final example of a close call is a driver who knowingly operates a vehicle that has a serious mechanical problem—the brakes are in terrible condition, and the driver knows it, for example. If the driver has to stop suddenly, but can't because of the condition of the brakes, and someone gets injured as a result, that kind of negligence could rise to the level of recklessness, and form the basis for a punitive damages claim.

Next Steps After a Car Accident

The minimal chance that your potential car accident lawsuit might include a claim for punitive damages probably isn't your chief concern if you've been hurt in a crash. You're likely more focused on getting a fair result when it comes to your compensatory damages (which, as we've explained, include the financial cost and subjective impact of your injuries and other losses). That usually starts with filing a car insurance claim.

If you're comfortable hanging in there with the claim process until you get the right settlement, it might be fine to try to handle your car accident claim on your own. But especially if your injuries are significant, it might be wise to at least discuss your situation (and your options) with an experienced legal professional. Things can turn pretty quickly when the other driver's insurance company doesn't seem to be willing to negotiate fairly, and there's simply no substitute for expertise.

Learn more about how a lawyer can help with a car accident claim.

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