Our North Carolina car accident attorneys understand that punitive damages are only appropriate in certain circumstances.
In Ekaterina V. Pouzanova v. Kuuipo T. Morton, decided by the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska, Ekaterina V. Pouzanova ran a stop sign and was hit on the side (T-bone collision) in a car driven by Kuuipo Morton. Morton went to the emergency room after the car accident and suffered from lower-back pain and a possible compression fracture.
Prior to trial, Morton asserted damages for pain and suffering but also damages for lost earnings and medical expenses. She also claimed punitive damages under a theory that Pouzanova was not only negligent, but also reckless.
In any negligence action, the plaintiff is asserting that the defendant owed a duty care to prevent harm to the plaintiff and then breached that duty of care by acting in a negligent manner. Negligence in North Carolina, as well as most other jurisdictions, requires that the defendant failed to act as a reasonable and prudent person to prevent foreseeable harm to foreseeable persons and property. In other words, the defendant acted carelessly, and that behavior caused harm in a predictable manner. On the other hand, reckless conduct means that a defendant acted with a complete disregard for the safety of others.
In Pouzaova, the plaintiff alleged that Morton’s running of the stop sign went beyond mere carelessness and was reckless driving. The reason this matters is that punitive damages, which can be well above the actual losses suffered, require more than a defendant simply being negligent. The judge ruled that the punitive damages claim was properly dismissed. The Alaska Supreme Court agreed and affirmed the judgment.
Our legal system historically disfavors the award of punitive damages. When you sue for the money you lost from missing work, hospital bills, future medical expenses, pain and suffering, and loss of consortium, you are suing for losses you actually experienced or will experience in the future. These damages are called compensatory damages, because their purpose is to compensate you for your losses. Punitive damages are not designed to compensate you for your losses. They are designed, as the name implies, to punish defendants for their conduct. They are designed to send a message to defendants and people or companies like them that that if you engage in a certain kind of risky behavior, you have to pay big.
In lawsuits against major car companies, juries have awarded punitive damages of billions of dollars to send the message that if you put people’s lives at risk to save a few dollars per car, it’s going to cost you. However, while courts will allow punitive damages in some cases, the defendant’s conduct must go far beyond ordinary negligence. The defendant must have done something that the court feels was truly outrageous for punitive damages to come into play. Running a stop sign, while dangerous and negligent, is not necessarily outrageous. Getting drunk and getting behind the wheel, however, may be considered reckless, and the plaintiff is more likely to recover punitive damages. This is a very complex issue, and the facts of every case are different. You should discuss the facts or your situation with your car accident attorney.
Contact the Carolina car accident lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Pouzanova v. Morton, June 20, 2014, June 20, 2014, Alaska Supreme Court
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The Lasting Impact of a Motor Vehicle Collision, June 20, 2014