Punitive Damages and Drunk Drivers in North Carolina

Punitive Damages and Drunk Drivers in North Carolina


North Carolina’s civil courts seek to compensate injured victims by forcing the defendant to pay a sum of money called “damages.” Damages in a regular automobile accident will usually cover economic losses like medical expenses, lost wages, and property damage. Damages can also cover intangible harms like pain and suffering.

However, motorists injured by drunk drivers might also be able to recover punitive damages—and the sums can be considerable.

What are Punitive Damages?

Most damages are compensatory and try to put the victim in the condition she would be in had the accident never happened. Unlike compensatory damages, punitive damages are directed toward the defendant. They are meant to punish defendants for egregious conduct. In this way, punitive damages can deter the defendant—as well as others—from committing these same bad acts in the future.

Under North Carolina law, an injured motorist might be able to recover punitive damages where the defendant’s conduct is “willful or wanton.” This means that the defendant exhibited “conscious and intentional disregard” for the safety of others and knew that his conduct was reasonably likely to cause injury. This definition often applies to defendants who cause accidents when they get behind the wheel of a vehicle.

How Much can I Receive?

A jury will determine how much to award in punitive damages based on the defendant’s conduct. Remember, punitive damages are meant to punish defendants so that they do not drive drunk again.

North Carolina’s legislature, worried about runaway juries awarding mammoth punitive damage claims, caps most punitive damages at $250,000 or three times the compensatory damages, whichever is larger. For example, if a jury awards $40,000 in compensatory damages, then a defendant can only get $120,000 in punitive damages.

However, there is no cap when someone under the influence of alcohol caused the injuries. Instead, the amount of punitive damages can go far above three times the amount of compensatory damages you receive or $250,000.

As the plaintiff, you have the burden of showing by clear and convincing evidence that punitive damages are warranted. The single most important factor to receiving punitive damages is hiring a lawyer who understands how to build a case against a drunk driver. Gathering the correct evidence is critical, and hiring the wrong attorney can dramatically reduce the amount of compensation that you receive.

Speak with a Car Accident Lawyer in Wilmington, North Carolina

Drunk drivers cause devastating injuries every day on North Carolina’s roads, and unsuspecting motorists have their lives turned upside down after a crash. If a drunk driver has harmed you or a loved one, you rightly expect the driver to be punished.

At Hodges Coxe Potter & Phillips, our car accident lawyers have handled all types of crashes, including those involving drunk drivers. We have the know-how to present evidence in a compelling way to juries so that awarding punitive damages is the sensible thing to do. To start the process of getting money damages for your injuries, please reach out to us today, 910-772-1678.