Can I be Punished for Getting Into an Accident?
The law splits criminal and non-criminal cases. Usually we think about punishment for criminal activity. So if you’re caught robbing a bank, the courts punish you by sending you to jail.
But what about when people are reckless to the point that they hurt someone? Can that type of negligent behavior rise to a punishment beyond just being sued? The short answer is YES. There are two things that can happen. The first is that the behavior is so bad that the criminal courts get involved. For example: if you text and drive and hurt someone you can be prosecuted for both the recklessness in the criminal court and sued in the civil court for the damages you cause.
Normally the civil damages are confined to the regular or “Compensatory” damages which include the economic damages, like lost wages and medical bills; and the non-economic damages of pain & suffering and loss of enjoyment of life.
However, there is a powerful additional type of damage that can be added in LLP cases which have behavior that is so bad that it rises to the level of punitive conduct or conduct that deserves additional punishment damages. They are called “Exemplary” or Punitive damages and this is where a jury can add in money on top of the award for regular damages.
Punitive damages are not added in lightly. The Plaintiff must first file their case without a punitive damage count. They must then establish enough proof and put that proof into the court’s file and then go back to the judge with a motion to add back in punitive damages.
The jury will hear the case and the evidence and be asked in their verdict whether the defendant acted in a way that was intentionally reckless or grossly negligent. Intentional conduct means the defendant meant to behave poorly. For example – a defendant who crashes into a plaintiff while drag racing another car. On the other hand, there is gross negligence, which is conduct that wasn’t intended to become negligent but because the actions of the defendant were so reckless it was a conscious disregard for human health or safety. Driving DUI or texting while driving can both be considered reckless.
Typically, punitive damages for a person’s conduct are against that individual person. It is hard to get an award for punitive damages against a corporation. However, sometimes it is possible to hold a corporation accountable for punitive damages. This only occurs when the behavior of the corporate entity is clearly reckless or intentionally dangerous. For example, when the Pinto automobile as put on the market even though the auto manufacturer knew it blew up when hit from behind – that was punitive. But normally, the actions of an individual don’t cause the whole corporation to be implicated, so the punitive damage award is against the persona and not the corporation.
For example, a trucker who drives his big rig drunk. He hurts someone and the trucker is liable for all the damages including punitive damages, but the corporation is only liable for the regular damages (under a legal analysis called Respondent Superior, where the business is responsible for all their employees) but not the punitive damages (they didn’t support his drunk driving). Unless, of course, they knew he was a habitual drunk driver and kept him on the road. Then maybe we could hold them liable for punitive damages.
There are some limits on punitive damages. They usually can’t be more than 3 times the regular damages or $500,000.00, whichever is greater. There are some circumstances where the defendants conduct can be motivated by financial gain, in other words a fraud scam, where the punitive damages and go up to 4x compensation damages or $2,000,000.00. But that is highly unusual.
Now here is the real kicker for punitive damages – you can never get rid of them unless you pay them off. They earn interest every year at the court set rate, which is always higher than average. Plus, they are exempt from bankruptcy! That means you can go bankrupt and discharge all your other debt and then still owe punitive damages!
So beware! If you harm someone while driving carelessly or recklessly you could be sued for a lot of money in both compensatory damages and punitive damages.
LaBovick LaBovick & Diaz is an injury law firm with significant experience in obtaining million-dollar plus awards including punitive damage awards for their clients. If you believe you were injured due to the negligent conduct of another call us today at (562)625-8400. The consultation is free and we never take a fee unless we get money for you.