Factors Affecting Punitive Damages After a Fatal Car Accident

The plaintiffs in a wrongful death case seek justice on behalf of a deceased loved one by claiming damages from the party responsible for the death due to negligence or willful behavior. Damages can fall into two broad categories: compensatory damages and punitive damages. Compensatory damages are intended to pay back the plaintiffs for what was lost. Punitive damages are intended to make an example of the defendant to prevent others from engaging in the same conduct and also to punish the defendant for his or her actions.

It is not always possible to recover punitive damages in a wrongful death case. A number of factors come into play to determine whether they are available.

State Law

The laws of most states generally do not allow plaintiffs in wrongful death cases to collect punitive damages. Even if the laws of the state allow it, punitive damages may only be permitted under specific circumstances. For example, if the decedent survived for a short time after the car accident, it might be possible to recover punitive damages through a survivorship claim. However, this would not be possible if the decedent died at the scene or would not otherwise be able to claim punitive damages.

Driver’s Conduct

State laws may make exceptions and allow punitive damages if the driver’s behavior was reckless, wanton, or grossly negligent. In other words, if the driver knew that his or her behavior could result in harm to others and made the willful decision to proceed, it may be possible to pursue punitive damages. However, if the behavior was merely thoughtless or careless, punitive damages are typically not available.

Harm to Others

In deciding whether to award punitive damages, the court may look at what the defendant might do in the future if not punished and how much harm future victims may suffer as a result. Because punitive damages also make an example of the defendant to others, the court may also consider whether assessing punitive damages may be effective in dissuading others from similar behavior.

Defendant’s Resources

The court may also take into consideration the resources that the defendant has available to pay the punitive damages. Often they are not sufficient, meaning that punitive damages are a largely symbolic gesture if they are awarded.

While all these factors have a bearing on punitive damages, state law may be the most significant. Contact a wrongful death lawyer, like from Johnston Martineau, LLP, to arrange a consultation to speak about your wrongful death action. They carefully consider the details of your case and explain what options are available for recovery.