Recovering Punitive Damages in North Carolina Personal Injury Cases | Ward and Smith, P.A.

If an accident is due to the negligence of another person, an injured person can claim damages from the culpable party or their insurance carrier.

For example, if an innocent driver is injured in a car accident, the individual can claim financial compensation for medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering. However, in certain situations, North Carolina law allows the injured party to seek punitive damages. Punitive damages go beyond damages and are intended to punish and deter misconduct. This article provides an overview of punitive damages for personal injury in North Carolina.

The role of punitive damages

Here, too, the injured party is entitled to demand compensation if one is injured due to the negligence of another. According to the law, the injured person is supposed to “complete” damages. How North Carolina law compensates for personal injury and death is paying money to make up for the damage caused. Several types of damage can occur in the event of personal injury. Damage may include medical expenses incurred, future medical expenses, lost wages, reduced ability to work, pain and suffering, scarring or disfigurement, loss of use of a body part, or durability related to persistent injury. While money cannot remedy these situations, it is up to the parties, a judge, or a jury to determine an appropriate amount of damages based on the specific facts of the case.

Punitive damages, on the other hand, should not “compensate” or “complete” an injured party. Punitive damages have the specific aim of (1) punishing defendants for outrageously unlawful acts and (2) discouraging defendants and others from committing such unlawful acts. So the political goals are punishment and deterrence. Punitive damages therefore have a societal benefit: they help prevent future grossly illegal acts, as such acts are punished by requiring payment of additional (and potentially substantial) monetary damages.

The types of outrageous behavior that may be punishable by punitive damages

Under North Carolina law, punitive damages can only be sought if there are certain aggravating factors: fraud, malice, or willful or willful behavior. “Willful or willful conduct” is defined as: “The conscious and deliberate disregard for and indifference to the rights and safety of others that the accused knows or should know can reasonably lead to injury, harm or other harm.” See NC Gen. Stat. § 1D-5. In particular, this requires more than “gross negligence” and punitive damages must be proven by “clear and convincing evidence”. This means that the burden of proof on the plaintiff is higher as it is not simply caused by an excess of evidence, as is the case with most civil law issues.

Punitive damages may apply in any case of such outrageous behavior. However, North Carolina has developed case law that further specifies the situations in which punitive damages may apply. For example, in car wreck cases, punitive damage may be appropriate if one of the following behaviors is involved: drunk driving (especially repeat offenses), racing, and dangerous / excessive speeding. In each of these situations, the courts have found assistance in providing punitive damages under North Carolina law.

Determination of the amount of punitive damage

A jury determines the appropriate amount of punitive damage at the court hearing. If an injured party’s claim is settled prior to legal proceedings, it is based on negotiation between their lawyer and the debtor’s defense attorney / insurance company taking into account the facts. Jury judgments from similar cases are likely to feed into this analysis.

Specifically, North Carolina law establishes factors that the jury may consider in determining the dollar amount of punitive damages to be awarded to an injured party. First, the jury must consider the purpose of the punitive damage, namely the appropriate amount to be granted to punish and deter the type of conduct in question. The jury may also consider the following additional factors:

  • the reprehensibility of the motives and conduct of the accused;
  • the likelihood of serious harm at that point;
  • the degree of awareness of the defendant of the likely consequences of his conduct;
  • the duration of the behavior of the defendant;
  • the actual damage suffered by the injured party;
  • any concealment of the facts or consequences of their conduct by the accused;
  • similar past behavior by the defendant and its frequency;
  • whether the accused benefited from their behavior; and
  • the defendant’s ability to pay punitive damages as shown in revenue or property.

See NC Gen. Stat. § 1D-35.

However, North Carolina now limits the amount of punitive damages a plaintiff can bring in court. Typically, the highest punitive damages that can be awarded is either three times the compensatory damage or $ 250,000.00, whichever is greater. For example, if a jury awards $ 1 million in damages to an injured party in the process, the jury may award punitive damages up to $ 3 million (three times as much as it is over $ 250,000) . If the damages awarded at the hearing were $ 10,000.00, punitive damages of $ 250,000.00 would be the maximum a jury could award (since the $ 250,000.00 cap is greater than three times the damages of $ 10,000.00 USD).

It is important that the “upper limit” for punitive damages does not apply if the claim is based on a defendant driving while impaired. According to North Carolina law, exacerbated cases of driving disorder with impairment must be given special consideration (given the dangers involved). As a result, there is no strict upper limit to the amount of punitive damage in cases of drunk driving.

Other Punitive Damage Considerations

Different legal principles apply to the award of punitive damages, and the law is too complex to cover all considerations in this landscape. For example, under North Carolina law, a punitive damages trial must be forked at the request of the defendant. So there is a first court hearing about liability and damages, and the jury decides on these issues. The same jury then hears a separate case for punitive damages and makes a separate decision on the matter. As another example, in the case of punitive damages being pursued against a company, an injured party must allege that officers, directors or managers participated in or “tolerated” the aggravating behavior. Additionally, there are other additional legal considerations that need to be analyzed when prosecuting punitive damages.


If injury occurs due to the negligence of another party, our legal system transfers responsibility to that negligent party. The injured person can then turn to that negligent party or that party’s insurance company for compensation. If the behavior is particularly outrageous, an injured party may also be able to claim punitive damages. If an injured person or their family believes that there is a case where punitive damages are appropriate, it is best to seek help from an experienced, dedicated lawyer. This ensures that you protect your rights and that you receive guidance even in a challenging and complex situation.

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