North Carolina personal injury and wrongful death law allows victims to claim compensatory damages and punitive damages. Compensatory damages are available to victims of negligence, and they cover the victim’s medical costs, lost wages and pain and suffering.
Punitive damages are available to victims of reckless behavior who have already proven that they deserve compensatory damages. The purpose of punitive damages, as defined in Chapter 1D of the North Carolina General Statutes is “to punish a defendant for egregiously wrongful acts and to deter the defendant and others from committing similar wrongful acts.”
Securing an award of punitive damages in North Carolina requires a plaintiff to work closely with a personal injury or wrongful death attorney to complete many steps that go beyond simply filing insurance claims and negotiating a settlement, or even winning a civil jury trial.
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When North Carolina Permits Claims for Punitive Damages
Punitive damage claims can only be made when each of the following is true and provable:
- The victim has been awarded compensatory damages by a trier of fact,
- The injury or death resulted from “willful or wanton conduct,” and
- “Clear and convincing evidence” shows that an aggravating factor contributed to causing the injury or death.
A trier of fact in a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit is almost always a jury. The jurors hear testimony and view evidence to determine whether the victim or the defendant is telling the truth about what happened.
Willful and wanton conduct is what most people call reckless behavior. Neither term has an exact definition under law, but the concept applies to actions taken without regard to consequences or the health and safety of other people. Driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol is a common reckless behavior that meets the North Carolina legal standard for being willful and wanton.
Drunk driving can be the aggravating factor in a personal injury or wrongful death case. In fact, drunk drivers are among the most frequent defendants in lawsuits that include claims for punitive damages.
Importantly, only the defendant who directly caused an injury or death can be held liable for paying punitive damages. As this is explained in the relevant state statute, “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.”
How Punitive Damages Are Awarded in North Carolina
North Carolina requires a bifurcated trial for awarding punitive damages. First, the trier of fact must decide in favor of the victim and award compensatory damages. Then, the same trier of fact must decide separately whether to award punitive damages.
As spelled out in NCGS Chapter 1D,
In determining the amount of punitive damages, if any, to be awarded, the trier of fact: (1) Shall consider the purposes of punitive damages …; and (2) May consider only that evidence that relates to the following:
- The reprehensibility of the defendant's motives and conduct.
- The likelihood, at the relevant time, of serious harm.
- The degree of the defendant's awareness of the probable consequences of its conduct.
- The duration of the defendant’s conduct.
- The actual damages suffered by the claimant.
- Any concealment by the defendant of the facts or consequences of its conduct.
- The existence and frequency of any similar past conduct by the defendant.
- Whether the defendant profited from the conduct.
- The defendant’s ability to pay punitive damages, as evidenced by its revenues or net worth.
North Carolina Does Not Cap the Payment of Punitive Damages by Drunk Drivers
The general rule is that juries can award up to $250,000 in punitive damages. Alternately, juries can award punitive damages in an amount that is up to three times the total compensatory damages, as long that amount does not exceed $250,000. By law, judges “shall reduce the award” to $250,000 when juries award more than the statutory cap.
However, the punitive damages cap is removed when the person who caused an injury or death was driving under the influence.