What Are Punitive Damages in Car Accident Claims?

Car accidents frequently result in catastrophic injuries. If you or a loved one sustained severe personal injuries due to another driver’s negligence, you can file a compensation claim to recover the cost of your medical bills, lost wages, and more.

Missouri is a pure comparative fault state, so both parties in an auto accident are entitled to compensation based on their degree of blame. This means that if you are 80% responsible for an accident, you can still sue the other driver for their role in the collision and receive 20% of eligible damages.

Plaintiffs may seek compensatory damages for economic and non-economic losses, which include medical bills and compensation for mental anguish and pain and suffering.

In some cases, car accident victims may also pursue a claim for punitive damages. Punitive damages are only awarded in exemplary cases, where the liable party’s actions exceed standard driver negligence. Although most auto accident lawsuits don’t involve punitive damages, there are exceptions.

What Are Punitive Damages?

Punitive damages are awarded in addition to compensatory damages in cases in which the defendant’s behavior is considered especially harmful, negligent, or dangerous.  They are considered non-compensatory, so while they do go to the victim, they are not intended to reimburse the victim for their injuries or losses.

Punitive damages are only awarded after a suit has been filed for compensatory damages. They cannot be the only form of compensation pursued in an auto accident case. The amount of punitive damages a plaintiff is entitled to depend on several factors, including:

  • Details of the defendant’s behavior relating to the accident
  • The defendant’s wealth and assets
  • The potential risk to other drivers if the defendant escapes punishment
  • Damages suffered by the victim in the incident relating to the punitive case

Missouri allows punitive damages under particular circumstances. The claimant must provide clear and convincing evidence that the at-fault driver acted with intent to harm without just cause or behaved with conscious disregard for others’ safety.

What is Deliberate Indifference?

Deliberate indifference refers to the conscious or reckless disregard of the consequences of one’s actions or omissions (lack of action). Deliberately indifferent actions are easier to prove in court than omissions.

For example, a driver engaging in a street race may be held liable for punitive damages if they cause a crash, because they are knowingly behaving in a manner that compromises the safety of other road users. Or, if a person knowingly drives under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the court may find that person recklessly indifferent to the dangers caused to others.

Cases of indifferent omission may include drivers who use their vehicle despite knowing it has a potentially dangerous mechanical issue, such as worn brakes or bald tires. The “omission” in this case was failing to take the car in for repair.

Although poor vehicle maintenance may be the primary cause of an accident, this is difficult to prove. If the defendant denies conscious disregard, the plaintiff may struggle to build a strong case for a punitive damage claim.

How Much Can I Get in Punitive Damages?

Missouri recognizes limitations on punitive damages, so the amount a defendant must pay to a plaintiff is capped. Compensation in any punitive damage case cannot exceed $500,000 or five times the compensatory damages awarded to the claimant for the same incident.

These limitations don’t apply if the state of Missouri is the one filing a punitive damage claim. They are also disregarded if the defendant pleads guilty or receives a conviction for a felony relating to the same case. For example, if the defendant is found guilty of criminal charges for their role in the accident, the state’s limitations don’t apply.

Recover the Compensation You Deserve with a St. Louis Attorney

Providing proof of deliberate indifference or conscious disregard in a punitive damages case can be challenging. If you’ve suffered injuries or losses in an accident due to recklessness, gross negligence, or wanton disregard for safety, seek legal representation from the reliable Missouri car accident lawyers at Cofman Townsley.

We can help you navigate the pure comparative fault system and receive maximum compensation for your losses. Our experienced lawyers act quickly to build a strong case, backed by substantial evidence, including witness statements and expert testimonies.

We will fight on your behalf until we reach a fair settlement. If a settlement can’t be reached, we can represent you in court. After handling your initial auto accident claim, you may also consider a punitive damage case. If the defendant’s liability exceeds standard negligence, our legal team can assist you through your punitive damages claim.

Contact us today for a free consultation to discuss your legal options.