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Can You Get Punitive Damages in a Car Accident Case?

Can You Get Punitive Damages in a Car Accident Case?

If you have been injured in a car accident in Texas because of another driver’s negligence or carelessness, you may be entitled to several kinds of damages. Texas law allows you to recover damages to compensate for losses like medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering. In cases involving particularly bad conduct by someone else involved in the accident, you may be able to recover additional damages that do not compensate you for any loss. Instead, the purpose of this type of damages, known as “punitive damages” or “exemplary damages,” is to punish the defendant or to make an example of them because of their bad behavior. To recover punitive damages in a car crash case in Texas, you would have to show that a defendant acted with serious disregard for the safety of others. It is a difficult burden of proof that requires careful planning and preparation with experienced legal help.

What Are Punitive Damages?

Damages in personal injury cases come in two main categories: compensatory damages and punitive damages. To understand punitive damages, it helps to know about the other kind of damages as well.

Compensatory Damages

As the name suggests, the purpose of compensatory damages is to compensate you for losses that you incurred because of a car accident or other incident. This category of damages has two sub-categories that are important in Texas law:

  • Economic damages cover losses that you can quantify, such as medical expenses, lost wages, and costs of rehabilitation. To establish the amount of damages, you can produce medical bills and documents showing how much work you missed.
  • Noneconomic damages compensate you for losses that are no less real, but not as easy to quantify. After a car accident, you might endure pain and suffering, mental anguish, disfigurement, or loss of enjoyment of life. Your spouse or partner might experience the loss of your companionship or intimacy, known as “loss of consortium.” You cannot present a bill from a doctor that shows the exact value of these losses, but you can establish their value in other ways.

Punitive Damages

State law defines punitive and exemplary damages as “any damages awarded as a penalty or by way of punishment but not for compensatory purposes.” A plaintiff in a personal injury case, potentially advised by an experienced Austin wrongful death attorney, may recover punitive damages if they can prove that their injuries resulted from:

  • Fraud;
  • Malice; or
  • Gross negligence.

“Fraud” has the meaning generally attributed to the term. “Malice” means that a defendant acted with the “specific intent” to cause the plaintiff serious injury or other harm. “Gross negligence” occurs when a person’s actions have “an extreme degree of risk,” and the person is aware of that risk but proceeds anyway “with conscious indifference” to other people’s safety.

A plaintiff must prove that a defendant meets these criteria by “clear and convincing evidence.” This is a higher burden of proof than for most personal injury claims, indicating that state law intends for punitive damages to be available only in cases involving extremely bad behavior. In such instances, consulting a Texas personal injury attorney can provide guidance on navigating these complex legal requirements.

Can You Get Punitive Damages in a Car Accident Case?

Punitive damages are possible in any kind of injury claim in Texas, including motor vehicle accidents, as long as you can meet the high burden of proof. A defendant would have to have engaged in illegal activity that directly caused a plaintiff’s injuries, or they must have acted with near-total disregard for the risk their actions posed to others.

Examples of cases that might hold a driver liable for punitive damages in a car wreck include:

  • Driving while intoxicated or driving while under the influence of drugs
  • Street racing or other highly dangerous activities on the road
  • Driving far above the speed limit
  • A hit-and-run accident that causes injuries
  • Driving despite knowledge of a serious defect that could result in an accident
  • Extremely reckless driving, such as writing text messages while driving in rush hour traffic during heavy rain
  • Intentionally causing a motor vehicle accident.

An employer could be liable for punitive damages for car accidents caused by an employee if they compelled the employee to do something extremely unsafe. A trucking company that requires drivers to work without rest breaks, for example, could face punitive damages if a fatigued driver causes an accident.

Punitive damages may also be available in claims against auto or auto parts manufacturers if an accident was the result of a faulty design or defective product. A plaintiff would have to establish that the defendant knew that injuries were a near certainty, but did nothing to reduce the risk.

How Do You Get Punitive Damages After an Accident?

Awards of punitive damages typically come only after a trial before a judge or jury. State law requires juries to reach a unanimous verdict regarding both a defendant’s liability for punitive damages and the amount of damages. Verdicts about compensatory damages do not have to be unanimous.

Building a case for punitive damages requires a substantial amount of evidence about the accident and the injuries. The court might also consider other evidence about the defendant, including:

  • The defendant’s character and past bad behavior;
  • The likelihood that the defendant will engage in similar conduct again unless punished; and
  • The defendant’s financial situation and ability to pay punitive damages.

How Much Can I Get in Punitive Damages in Texas?

Texas sets a cap on punitive damages in most cases. If the defendant’s conduct is also a felony, punitive damages are not capped. Otherwise, the maximum amount of punitive damages that a jury may award is the greater of:

  • Two times the amount of economic damages plus the amount of noneconomic damages up to $750,000 or
  • $200,000.

Suppose that a jury awards a plaintiff $200,000 in economic damages and $800,000 in noneconomic damages. The maximum amount of punitive damages the jury could award would be $1.15 million, or two times the $200,000 award plus $750,000 of the noneconomic damage award. If the jury awarded the plaintiff $50,000 in economic damages and $25,000 in noneconomic damages, the jury could award up to $200,000 in punitive damages.

Contact an Auto Accident Attorney

Car accidents can cause severe injuries or death. If you have suffered injuries in an accident in Central or South Texas, you might be entitled to multiple types of damages, including compensation for your injuries and punitive damages for a defendant’s illegal or grossly negligent conduct. The injury attorneys at Evans/Reilley, known for their expertise as Austin car accident lawyer, are available to help you understand your rights and options. Contact us today at (512) 732-2727 to schedule a free, no-obligation case evaluation.

Attorney Chip Evans

Austin Attorney Chip EvansChip Evans is a partner at Evans & Herlihy. Chip brings to the firm more than 20 years of experience as a trial lawyer representing Plaintiffs. It is the desire to help individuals, not corporations, that attracts Chip to this side of the docket. [ Attorney Bio ]