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Auto Accidents and Punitive Damages

When you are injured because of another driver's negligent actions, the at-fault driver is required to fully compensate you for the losses that are attributable to the at-fault driver's negligence. They or their insurance company must pay for past and future medical expenses, lost wages, property damage, pain and suffering, and any other losses that are compensable under South Carolina law. 

Punitive damages are not intended to compensate the victim. Instead, they are designed to punish the defendant driver for their misconduct and hopefully to deter them from doing it again. Although punitive damages may be uncommon in car wreck cases, they can be awarded when the defendant's conduct was willful, reckless, or resulted in a felony conviction.

How Punitive Damages are Awarded

Under S.C. Code Section 15-32-520, trials must be bifurcated when a plaintiff seeks punitive damages. In the first stage of the trial, we present evidence as to fault, causation, and damages that apply only to the compensatory damages. Evidence that is relevant only to punitive damages is not admissible during this first phase of the trial. Once the jurors have determined that the defendant is liable and they have awarded compensatory damages, we move to the second phase of the trial where the jurors consider punitive damages.

The standard of proof for punitive damages in South Carolina is clear and convincing evidence, which is a slightly higher burden than is required to establish liability and compensatory damages. We must prove that the defendant's behavior was willful, wanton, or reckless. Although there is wide range of conduct that may qualify, it will often be conduct that could also be criminal such as reckless driving or drunk driving. When deciding the amount of punitive damages, the jurors can consider any relevant evidence including:

· The defendant's culpability.

· The severity of the harm.

· Whether the plaintiff's conduct contributed to the harm.

· The duration of the conduct and whether the defendant tried to conceal it.

· Any history of similar conduct.

· Whether the defendant profited from the conduct.

· The defendant's ability to pay.

· The likelihood that the punitive damages will deter future similar conduct.

· Any other punitive damages awards against the defendant based on the same circumstances.

· Any criminal penalties imposed on the defendant.

· Any civil fines imposed on the defendant.

Punitive Damages Caps

S.C. Code Section 15-32-530 limits punitive damages awards to three times the compensatory damages award or $500,000, whichever is greater. The jury is not told what the caps are and the judge will reduce the award if appropriate under the statute. There are exceptions that may apply in some auto accident cases, including drunk driving accidents. First, where "the defendant's actions could subject the defendant to conviction of a felony and that act or course of conduct is a proximate cause of the plaintiff's damages," the cap is increased to four times the compensatory damages amount or two million dollars.

Second, there is no cap on punitive damages in drunk driving accident cases where: 1) The defendant has pled guilty to or been convicted of a felony charge based on their conduct in causing the auto accident; or 2) The defendant was driving while intoxicated by alcohol or drugs.

Your drunk driving accident lawyer at Axelrod and Associates will examine every angle of your case and will fight to obtain full compensation for you including punitive damages when they are available under the law.

If you or someone you know has been injured in an auto accident, schedule a free consultation with a Myrtle Beach personal injury lawyer on the Axelrod team. Call us at (843) 916-9300 or fill out our contact form today.

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