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Punitive Damages In Car Accident with Impaired Driver

Let’s suppose that you were involved in a car accident with an impaired driver.  Can you recover punitive damages in addition to your compensatory damages?  In North Carolina, it’s possible that you can.

Punitive damages are addressed by North Carolina statute.  G.S. 1D-15 states that:

(a)     Punitive damages may be awarded only if the claimant proves that the defendant is liable for compensatory damages and that one of the following aggravating factors was present and was related to the injury for which compensatory damages were awarded:

(1)     Fraud.

(2)     Malice.

(3)     Willful or wanton conduct.

(b)     The claimant must prove the existence of an aggravating factor by clear and convincing evidence.

(c)     Punitive damages shall not be awarded against a person solely on the basis of vicarious liability for the acts or omissions of another.  Punitive damages may be awarded against a person only if that person participated in the conduct constituting the aggravating factor giving rise to the punitive damages, or if, in the case of a corporation, the officers, directors, or managers of the corporation participated in or condoned the conduct constituting the aggravating factor giving rise to punitive damages.

(d)    Punitive damages shall not be awarded against a person solely for breach of contract.

The aggravating factor present and related to the injury in an automobile accident with an impaired driver is “willful or wanton conduct” which G.S. 1D-5(7) defines as “the conscious and intentional disregard of and indifference to the rights and safety of others, which the defendant knows or should know is reasonably likely to result in injury.”

The statute provision in G.S. 1D-30 provides that

Upon the motion of a defendant, the issues of liability for compensatory damages and the amount of compensatory damages, if any, shall be tried separately from the issues of liability for punitive damages and the amount of punitive damages, if any. Evidence relating solely to punitive damages shall not be admissible until the trier of fact has determined that the defendant is liable for compensatory damages and has determined the amount of compensatory damages. The same trier of fact that tried the issues relating to compensatory damages shall try the issues relating to punitive damages.

Pursuant to G.S. 1D-35

In determining the amount of punitive damages, if any, to be awarded, the trier of fact:

(1) Shall consider the purposes of punitive damages set forth in G.S. 1D-1; and

(2) May consider only that evidence that relates to the following:

a. The reprehensibility of the defendant's motives and conduct.

b. The likelihood, at the relevant time, of serious harm.

c. The degree of the defendant's awareness of the probable consequences of its conduct.

d. The duration of the defendant's conduct.

e. The actual damages suffered by the claimant.

f. Any concealment by the defendant of the facts or consequences of its conduct.

g. The existence and frequency of any similar past conduct by the defendant.

h. Whether the defendant profited from the conduct.

i. The defendant's ability to pay punitive damages, as evidenced by its revenues or net worth.

The purposes set forth in G.S. 1D-1 are “to punish a defendant for egregiously wrongful acts and to deter the defendant and others from committing similar wrongful acts.”

Additionally, although G.S. 1D-25 generally limits punitive damages to the greater of three times the amount of compensatory damages and $250,000, G.S. 1D-26 states that this limit does not apply to a “claim for punitive damages for injury or harm arising from a defendant's operation of a motor vehicle if the actions of the defendant in operating the motor vehicle would give rise to an offense of driving while impaired under G.S. 20-138.1, 20-138.2, or 20-138.5.”

North Carolina’s punitive damage legislation was enacted relatively recently in 1995, so there are only a few cases that interpret these provisions in the context of an automobile collision with an impaired driver.  However, courts have held that “Chapter 1D reinforces the common-law purpose behind punitive damages."  In addition, looking at the cases that address punitive damages in an automobile collision with an impaired driver pre-1995, the courts’ reasoning in those cases seems consistent with the current statute, and cases post-1995 have continued to use pre-1995 cases to support their analysis.

The impairment of the other driver does not automatically permit a damaged party to collect punitive damages. North Carolina cases require specific evidence of impairment for a plaintiff to recover punitive damages and courts have held that “allegations of intoxication alone are not a sufficient basis to permit a punitive damages claim to be submitted to a jury.”

Cases that do award punitive damages to an injured plaintiff in an automobile collision with an impaired driver include testimony of officers as to the defendant’s glassy eyes and the results of specific field tests as well as Breathalyzer results.  Some cases have even included testimony from the defendant acknowledging how much alcohol they consumed or even that they knew they were drunk when they got behind the wheel of the car.

In contrast, cases that do not award punitive damages have only a general allegation of impairment or a smell of alcohol on the defendant’s breath.  Notably, these cases do not have Breathalyzer results introduced as evidence.  A pre-1995 case, in which the defendant plead guilty to dwi but where the plaintiff did not provide other evidence of impairment, held that the plaintiff was not entitled to punitive damages.

In addition, courts have looked at the purposes of the punitive damages statute which is “to punish a defendant for egregiously wrongful acts and to deter the defendant and others from committing similar wrongful acts.”  Each of these purposes must be served in order to award punitive damages.  So in the 2008 case Harrell v. Bowen where the defendant was no longer alive, the purpose of punishing the defendant could not be served and therefore the plaintiff was not entitled to punitive damages.

If you have been injured in a car accident, it is important to hire a lawyer who understands all aspects of punitive damages.  Contact an attorney at Rosensteel Fleishman, PLLC (704) 714-1450.


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