Can You Get Punitive Damages in a Car Accident Case?

January 24, 2022

When someone else causes a car accident, you have the right to sue them for your injuries. You may also want them to be punished for what they did. Punitive damages in a car crash are possible when the other driver did something that’s more extreme than a typical car crash.

Can You Get Punitive Damages in a Car Accident Case?

In order to get punitive damages in a car wreck claim, there needs to be something that made the accident much worse than other accidents. Serious injuries are one factor that can increase the likelihood and amount of punitive damages. Most importantly, the other driver’s conduct needs to be particularly egregious. The reason for punitive damages is to discourage that driver and other drivers from engaging in the same type of behavior.

What Is the Standard for Punitive Damages?

There is no set standard for punitive damages in a Pennsylvania car accident case other than that it takes more than ordinary negligence. Ordinary negligence is what makes the at-fault driver liable for compensatory damages. Compensatory damages are always available, but punitive damages are only available in special circumstances.

Some states define the standard for punitive damages as gross negligence, recklessness, or willful and wanton behavior. There is no direct correlation under Pennsylvania law, but actions meeting those definitions would generally suggest that punitive damages are appropriate.

Ultimately, a jury decides if punitive damages are appropriate. First, a judge decides whether a jury could reasonably find that punitive damages should apply. If so, the judge then instructs the jury on the factors to consider, including the following.

  • Whether the defendant knew of and disregarded a risk of harm
  • Whether there was an intentional act
  • The type of harm done
  • The nature of the defendant’s behavior as it relates to other drivers
  • The defendant’s state of mind

If the jury concludes that the defendant’s actions were more than ordinary negligence, it can award punitive damages.

What Are Examples of Punitive Damages in a Car Wreck Case?

Punitive damages might be awarded in the following types of cases.

  • Drunk driving
  • Driving under the influence of illegal narcotics
  • Driving under the influence of medication where the driver knows the medication could cause them to fall asleep or lose alertness
  • Knowingly driving when a medical condition could cause the driver to fall asleep or lose alertness
  • Street racing
  • Excessive speeding
  • Reckless driving

These are only examples. Other types of dangerous driving could allow for punitive damages. It should also be noted that a jury may not always award punitive damages in similar types of cases if the jury feels the facts weren’t particularly egregious.

Can You Get Punitive Damages in a Settlement?

It is possible to get punitive damages in a settlement. Even though a jury decides punitive damages, car accident lawyer can still predict the amounts and types of damages that will be awarded in a car accident case. If a jury would be likely to award punitive damages in your case, it may be possible to get punitive damages in your settlement without going to trial.

Both your lawyer and the other driver’s lawyer will look at what happened in similar cases in the past. Each case is unique, but if a certain type of accident usually results in punitive damages, your chances of settling for punitive damages are higher. Similarly, if a jury awarded high punitive damages in a similar case, this can show that you are also likely to receive a high amount of punitive damages if you win at trial. Settlements also recognize that each case is unique, and you can never be certain about what will happen if your case goes to a jury.

Can You Get Punitive Damages in a Car Accident Case against the Government?

It is not possible to get punitive damages in a car accident case against the government. Suing the government is different from suing people and businesses. Claims against the government are governed by sovereign immunity. This means that you can’t sue the government unless the government specifically says that you can.

Pennsylvania law allows you to recover for injuries, property damage, and related expenses in claims against the government. There is no provision allowing for punitive damages.

In some cases, you may be able to get punitive damages by suing the individual driver if they were acting outside of their government duties. For example, if someone brought their government vehicle home, drove to a bar, and then got into a drunk driving accident, they may not be protected by the laws preventing lawsuits against government employees since they weren’t working for the government at that time.

How Are Punitive Damages Calculated?

Unlike compensatory damages, there is no set way of calculating punitive damages. Juries will often increase punitive damages when there are more serious injuries, but punitive damages aren’t tied to medical expenses or any other set measurement. Unlike fines for traffic violations or criminal offenses, there is no set scale for punitive damages.

The judge will ask the jury to use the same factors that the jury uses to determine whether punitive damages apply. The worse the jury finds the conduct to be, the higher the punitive damages they will award.

In some cases, a judge may find that the amount of punitive damages the jury awarded was unreasonable and lower the amount of punitive damages. Both the plaintiff and defendant have the right to appeal the amount of punitive damages.

How Do You Get Punitive Damages after An Accident?

Punitive damages are part of a car accident case. There isn’t a separate action for punitive damages. If you settle your case or sue without considering punitive damages, you may not be able to recover punitive damages.

To get punitive damages, take the following steps.

Don’t Agree to Anything

The other driver or their insurance company may pressure you to accept a quick settlement. Your own insurance company may also want to settle. Even if you desperately need the money for your medical expenses or normal bills, it can be a bad idea to settle without consulting with a car accident lawyer.

Once you accept a settlement, you generally lose the right to seek additional compensation. Your case may be worth far more than what even your own insurance company is telling you. This can be especially true in cases involving punitive damages since insurance often won’t pay punitive damages.

Act Quickly

You only have a limited amount of time to bring a car accident case under the law. Waiting can also make it hard to gather evidence or to prepare for trial. Speak with a car accident attorney as soon as possible to preserve your right to sue for punitive damages in a car crash.

Prove Your Case

In order to receive punitive damages, you will need to win at trial or convince the other side to settle because you can win at trial. You will need to show both that the other driver caused your accident and that the reason they caused your accident warrants punitive damages.

Be Ready for an Appeal

Many cases involving punitive damages are appealed. Because juries don’t follow strictly defined standards, it’s easy for the defendant to argue that what the jury awarded is unreasonable.

Just because a defendant appeals doesn’t mean that you’ll get less money. It’s often possible for your lawyer to preserve your award or to get a post-trial settlement that you’re satisfied with.

Contact an Experienced Trial Attorney

If you want to know whether you can get punitive damages in your car accident case, talk to an experienced trial attorney. To get more information or to schedule a free consultation, call the team at Wapner Newman at (215) 569-0900.