Punitive Damages in Virginia Auto Accidents
Clients often ask car accident compensation lawyers whether an injured victim can recover punitive damages in a lawsuit. In Virginia, while there are some situations when a judge or jury can award punitive damages in an accident case, those circumstances are very limited.
What Are Punitive Damages?
In an accident case, there are two types of damages: compensatory damages and punitive damages. Punitive damages are sometimes also referred to as exemplary damages.
Compensatory damages can be economic or non-economic. They compensate or reimburse the injured victim for losses caused by the accident and injuries. Economic damages include items like lost wages and medical expenses. Non-economic damages include compensation for items like pain and suffering. Compensatory damages make the victim whole by compensating for his or her losses.
Punitive or exemplary damages have nothing to do with the victim's losses or the nature of the injuries. They are intended to punish the responsible person and deter others from similar conduct by making an example of the person who caused the injuries.
Punitive Damages in Virginia
There are two different ways that punitive damages can be available in Virginia. One type is provided in a specific statute. That law provides for awarding punitive or exemplary damages in certain circumstances for persons injured by intoxicated drivers.
The second type of punitive damages in Virginia is available under common law — also sometimes referred to as case law. Common law is the body of law established through decisions of the Virginia courts.
In either case, the amount of punitive damages is limited by statute to a maximum award of $350,000 in Virginia courts.
Virginia Statutory Punitive Damages for DUI Victims
The Virginia statute provides that in a case involving injury or death arising from motor vehicle or train accident the finder of fact (either the judge or jury) has the discretion to award punitive damages “if the evidence proves that the defendant acted with malice toward the plaintiff or the defendant's conduct was so willful or wanton as to show a conscious disregard for the rights of others.” The law goes on to list the circumstances that are sufficiently willful or wanton, including:
- A blood alcohol concentration of 0.15 percent or more;
- The defendant knew or should have known that his/her ability to operate a motor vehicle or train was impaired; and
- The defendant’s intoxication caused the plaintiff’s injury.
The law also provides that if the defendant refused to take a blood alcohol test, his or her conduct still can be considered sufficiently willful or wanton based on evidence about the conduct or condition of the defendant.
Importantly, the law does not automatically entitle a plaintiff to punitive damages, even when the circumstances described in the statute are met. The award of damages is entirely within the discretion of the judge and jury. Whether punitive damages by a judge or jury will be awarded depends entirely on the specific circumstances in each case.
The only way to determine whether your case presents circumstances for a possible award under the statute is to talk with an experienced car accident compensation lawyer.
Virginia Punitive Damages Under Common Law
For all personal injury cases, including intoxicated driver cases, standards for awarding punitive damages are established by prior Virginia court decisions. Generally, to recover punitive damages under common law, a plaintiff must establish that the defendant’s conduct was intentional, seriously reckless, or malicious. The type of conduct is far beyond that required to establish a case for ordinary negligence that would entitle a plaintiff to recover compensatory damages.
The common law standard applied by Virginia courts requires the “most egregious conduct” to justify an award of punitive damages. It is a very high standard. Car accident compensation lawyers caution clients that punitive damages are rarely awarded in auto accident cases. Even when they are, a judge can reduce a jury award of punitive damages if the judge considers the award to be excessive.
Only an experienced Virginia personal injury attorney can assess the circumstances in your accident case to determine whether punitive damages might be available. Making that determination requires investigation of the accident and application of complex legal principles developed by the Virginia courts.
Talk With an Experienced Virginia Car Accident Compensation Lawyer
If you were seriously injured in an accident in Virginia, and someone else may be at fault, you may be entitled to compensatory damages for your injuries, lost wages, pain and suffering, and more, regardless of whether punitive damages are available. Trusted Virginia Beach car accident attorney Jeff Brooke and The Jeff Brooke Team are here to help you and your family. Contact us by phone at (757) 347-8524 or by using our online contact form.
Jeff Brooke is a personal injury attorney devoted to helping individuals who have suffered serious and catastrophic injuries or lost a loved one as a result of someone else’s negligent and careless actions. The Jeff Brooke Team serves all of southeastern Virginia. The firm helps clients in the Greater Tidewater and Greater Hampton Roads areas, including in Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, and Chesterfield. The Jeff Brooke Team also handles cases in northeastern North Carolina, including the Outer Banks.