In a personal injury case, the term damages refers to the amount of money a defendant has to pay the plaintiff. The most common form of damages is compensatory damages. These are damages designed to compensate the plaintiff for their losses. For example, if you sue someone for causing a car accident, your compensatory damages include out-of-pocket expenses like your medical bills, as well as intangible items like your pain and suffering.
There is also a second type of award known as punitive damages. These damages are rarer and do not apply to every case. Here is a brief rundown of some of the key things you need to know about punitive damages:
- Punitive Damages Are Meant to Punish Egregious Behavior.
As noted above, compensatory damages are about compensating you for your injuries. Punitive damages are different. The objective is not to compensate you or “make you whole” from your injuries. Punitive damages are meant to punish. Put another way, the Virginia Supreme Court has observed that punitive damages “are meant to warn” the defendant and others who might engage in similar conduct.
There are two basic grounds for awarding punitive damages in Virginia: The defendant engaged in “actual malice” against the defendant, or the defendant’s actions amounted to a “willful and wanton disregard” for the plaintiff’s rights. Actual malice basically means the defendant intended to injure the plaintiff; i.e., it was not an accident. “Willful and wanton disregard” generally means the defendant’s conduct was particularly reckless or egregious under the circumstances. In either case, simple negligence is not enough to justify punitive damages.
- Punitive Damage May Be Allowed When a Drunk Driver Causes a Car Accident.
Drunk driving can meet the “willful or wanton disregard” standard for punitive damages under Virginia law if all three of the following conditions are met:
- The defendant had a blood-alcohol content (BAC) of 0.15 percent or greater at the time of the accident;
- The defendant knew–or should have known–that their ability to drive “would be impaired” due to their drinking; and
- The defendant’s intoxication was the “proximate cause” of the accident that injured the plaintiff.
A couple of things to keep in mind here: First, the minimum BAC required for punitive damages is nearly twice the legal limit for criminal drunk driving in Virginia. Second, if the defendant refused to submit to a BAC test (i.e., a Breathalyzer) following the accident, that too can be cited in a personal injury lawsuit as evidence of willful or wanton misconduct.
- Punitive Damages Are Limited by State Law.
By their very nature, punitive damages are difficult to quantify. It is effectively a measurement of the jury’s disapproval for the defendant’s conduct. For that reason, juries are generally free to decide the amount of punitive damages as it sees fit.
But there is an important caveat: Virginia law caps punitive damage awards at $350,000. Now, the jury is not told about this beforehand. So in theory, a jury could return a punitive damage award of $10 million. The judge, however, is required to reduce any “excessive” jury award after the fact so that it does not exceed $350,000.
Speak with a Fairfax, Virginia, Car Accident Lawyer Today
Compensatory and punitive damages are both important legal tools to hold negligent–and reckless–drivers accountable to their victims. If you have been involved in a car accident and need representation from an experienced Fairfax personal injury attorney, contact Whitestone Young, PC, today to schedule a consultation.