What Are Punitive Damages in a Car Accident Claim?

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Most people are not aware of what punitive damages are in a car accident claim. Learn when a car accident victim becomes entitled to punitive damages.

Car accidents happen in Texas quite frequently. In 2020, 42,060 people died in automobile crashes. According to 2019 accident statistics, one person died every 2.26 hours from a Texas traffic crash that year. The same year recorded a total of 12,897 serious injury crashes resulting in 15,843 people sustaining serious injuries. While auto accidents happen for diverse reasons, many times, it’s the fault of a reckless driver who should be punished. 

As a result, Texas laws mandate every motorist to possess a minimum coverage amount in auto insurance. When they cause any car accident, such mandatory insurance compensates the innocent drivers and victims in the accident.. The compensatory damage award an injured party receives will usually cover medical treatment and damage to property. However, in some cases, the accident victims may receive some other types of compensation like punitive and non-economic damages.

In this article, we’d focus on punitive damages and when accident victims can receive them. To be sure of the extent of damages you’re entitled to, you should speak with your car accident attorney.

What Are Punitive Damages?

Most times, when injured persons file automobile accident claims, it’s because they want compensation for their personal injuries. The damages will put them back in the position they were in before the accident. However, in some cases, compensatory damages don’t do enough justice.

At-fault drivers who portray a reckless disregard for other motorists’ safety should be punished for such egregious behavior. That’s the aim of punitive damages โ€” to punish the negligent driver for his or her wanton conduct. They’re also called exemplary damages because they also aim to deter others from similar behavior. In other words, punitive damages look to punish the defendants for their atrocious actions instead of compensating the aggrieved party.

The common factors that influence punitive damage awards include the following: 

  • The Nature of the Defendants’ Alleged Conduct: The courts will consider the severity of the defendant’s bad behavior. The harsher the defendant’s conduct, the higher the probability of a huge punitive damages award.
  • Defendant’s Assets: Generally, the defendant will be liable to punitive damages to the degree he or she can afford.
  • The Consequences of the Defendant Going Unpunished: The courts may consider the effects of their refusal to award punitive damages to the defendant. If they find that the defendant going unpunished wouldn’t do justice to the matter, they may award heavy punitive damages. 
  • The Actual Harm the Plaintiff Suffered in the Accident: Actual harm refers to the physical injuries and property damage that the accident caused its victims. Actual harm could range from mild injuries (like whiplashes) to more severe ones (like hip pains and traumatic brain injuries). The severity of the actual harm could influence the number of punitive damages.

What Other Types of Damages Can I Get in a Car Accident Claim?

Damages for automobile accident claims are of two types โ€” punitive and compensatory damages. While punitive damages aim at retribution and deterrence, compensation damages reimburse the victim for your economic losses and physical hurt. Compensatory damages are divided into economic and non-economic Damages: 

  • Economic Damages

Economic damages are also called special damages or actual damages. This type of damages reimburses victims for money expended as a result of the accident.. For example, patients with accident injuries would have to pay medical bills to treat them.ย 

They may also incur a pile of bills trying to repair or replace damaged properties. These, alongside any other economic losses they may incur, are covered under economic or actual damages. Compensation for loss of income and future earnings, vocational rehabilitation, lost business, out-of-pocket expenses, etc.

  • Non-Economic Damages 

Non-economic damages, also called general damages, are the second type of compensatory awards a negligent party may have to pay. Unlike economic damages, this category of damages compensates victims for damages that ordinarily don’t have a financial value. At the same time, economic damages are measurable and ascertainable through receipts and other documents, but non-economic damages are not.

Hence, they are subjective and are awarded based on a lot of factors. Common examples of general damages include compensation for pain and suffering, loss of consortium, physical impairment like permanent disability, etc. 

Will All Accident Victims Receive Punitive Damages Awards in Texas? 

Generally, the rules concerning punitive damages awards differ from state to state. Some states only make provisions for compensatory damages alone and don’t award punitive compensation at all. Some other states will only award punitive damages if the accident plaintiff has also received economic or non-economic damages. 

Fortunately, although rarely awarded, Texas laws allow for punitive damages. Texas courts can also award these damages even when the victim didn’t receive monetary damages. However, to be eligible for a punitive damages award, the defendant’s bad actions must exceed ordinary negligence.

That is, if the defendant merely acted carelessly, such negligent behavior may not necessitate a punitive damages award. For the court to consider punitive damages, his or her egregious conduct must amount to gross negligence, recklessness, or a wanton disregard for persons on the road. These actions can also be described as an intentional tort or willful misconduct. The terms describe conducts that are more irrational and have an element of recklessness instead of mere negligence. 

Whether an action is grossly negligent or not depends on the peculiarities of each case. Since the burden of proof is on the plaintiff, they must produce compelling evidence to prove gross negligence. For example, proving that the driver answered a phone call while driving may not be gross negligence. 

However, knowingly driving a faulty car may constitute a reckless indifference to the safety of others. Drunk drivers driving their cars may also be grossly negligent if they cause drunk-driving crashes.

In Texas, the courts have a limit on the amount they can award as punitive damages. It’s as follows: 

  • $200,000 for plaintiffs who weren’t awarded economic damages 
  • If the plaintiff was awarded economic damages, a double of the actual damages plus the value of the non-economic damages. However, it shouldn’t be more than $750,000.

To increase your chances of getting the maximum punitive damages available, you should hire a competent auto accident attorney.

Can An Insurance Company Award Me Punitive Damages? 

There’s a difference between an accident claim and an accident lawsuit. In a claim, you’re seeking a settlement from the at-fault drivers’ insurance company. Sometimes, it could be through your uninsured or underinsured motorist coverage if the negligent party is an uninsured driver. However, in a lawsuit, you hope to get your compensation via a court order. 

While a court can award punitive damages, insurance companies wouldn’t. That’s because punitive damages usually go beyond what their policy covers. Insurance companies aim to provide compensation for personal injuries and property damages alone. As such, they can provide compensatory damages for the accident victims.

Since insurance companies aren’t interested in retribution and deterrence, they will not offer punitive damages. If you feel that your case demands some punitive damages, you should speak with your personal injury lawyers. They will access your case and let you in on the appropriate steps to achieve that.

Contact the Best Texas Accident Lawyers Now!

One of the common reasons people file auto accident charges is to get fair compensation for their personal injuries. Sometimes, they can also get punitive damages depending on the peculiarities of their case. However, you can hardly get the monetary compensation you deserve without an experienced car accident attorney.

That’s why McDonald Worley’s experienced team of personal injury lawyers is always available for you. We are the most qualified accident injury lawyers in Houston, Texas.. Our legal team will negotiate the best accident settlements for your personal injury claims. If you’d need to file a personal injury lawsuit, we’d ensure that you get the best representation in court.. Book an appointment with us today.