When you get injured in an accident that is someone else’s fault, South Carolina law states that you are entitled to just compensation for your injury-related losses. As the term “just compensation” suggests, this financial award is compensatory in nature. In other words, it is supposed to help make you whole in spite of the losses you have endured.
In most personal injury cases, just compensation (or “compensatory damages”) will be the only form of financial award available. When your attorney negotiates with the at-fault party’s insurance company or defense lawyer, he or she will seek full compensation for your financial and non-financial losses. Depending upon the nature and extent of your injuries, this could include a substantial recovery for your:
- Current and future medical bills
- Other current and future out-of-pocket expenses
- Loss of income
- Loss of future earning capacity
- Scarring and disfigurement
- Pain and suffering
- Emotional trauma
- Loss of society, services, consortium, companionship, and enjoyment of life
Under certain circumstances, however, punitive damages may also be available. Unlike compensatory damages – which are designed to make you whole – punitive damages are designed to punish the at-fault party for particularly egregious conduct.
When Can an Accident Victim Seek Punitive Damages in South Carolina?
South Carolina’s Noneconomic Damage Awards statute places two primary limitations on the availability of punitive damages in cases involving accident-related injuries:
- “Punitive damages may be considered [only] if compensatory or nominal damages have been awarded . . . ;” and,
- “Punitive damages may be awarded only if the plaintiff proves by clear and convincing evidence that his harm was the result of the defendant’s wilful, wanton, or reckless conduct.”
Requirement No. 1: Compensatory or Nominal Damages
First, a personal injury plaintiff can collect punitive damages only if he or she has received an award of compensatory or nominal damages during an earlier stage of the trial. Compensatory damages, as discussed above, are designed to allow the victim to recoup his or her accident-related losses. The reference to “nominal damages” is inapplicable to personal injury cases, as these damages are only awarded where there is evidence of fault but no actual losses have occurred.
Requirement No. 2: Clear and Convincing Evidence of Willful, Wanton, or Reckless Conduct
Second, in order to win an award of punitive damages, a personal injury plaintiff must prove by “clear and convincing evidence” that the at-fault party engaged in “wilful, wanton, or reckless conduct.”
- “Clear and convincing evidence” – In order to recover compensatory damages, a plaintiff must prove the defendant’s fault by a “preponderance of the evidence.” This simply means that it must be more likely than not – or more than 50% certain – that the defendant caused the plaintiff’s injuries. In order to satisfy the “clear and convincing evidence” standard, a plaintiff must prove that there is a high probability, or substantial likelihood, that the defendant was at fault in the accident.
- “Wilful, wanton, or reckless conduct” – In an action for compensatory damages, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s actions rose to the level of “negligence.” This means that the defendant acted in breach of a general duty of care (such as the duty to drive safely on public roads). However, in an action for punitive damages, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s conduct was worse than negligent—the plaintiff must prove that the defendant acted willfully, wantonly, or recklessly in causing the accident.
Each of these heightened standards makes it more difficult to prove a claim for punitive damages than it is to prove a claim for compensatory damages. However, they do not make securing punitive damages impossible, and there are certain clearly-recognized forms of conduct that will justify claims for punitive damages. These include:
- Intentionally causing harm to a plaintiff;
- Conduct that constitutes a felony criminal offense to which the defendant has pled guilty or of which the defendant has been convicted in court; and,
- Acting under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
How are Punitive Damages Calculated in South Carolina?
If an award of punitive damages is appropriate, then the amount of damages to be awarded will be determined based upon the factors listed in the Noneconomic Damage Awards statute. These factors include (but are not limited to):
- The defendant’s degree of culpability
- The severity of the harm caused by the defendant
- The extent to which the plaintiff’s own conduct contributed to the harm
- The duration of the conduct, the defendant’s awareness, and any concealment by the defendant
- The existence of similar past conduct
- The defendant’s ability to pay
- Any criminal penalties imposed on the defendant as a result of the same act or course of conduct complained of by the plaintiff
Ultimately, just like the determination of whether punitive damages should be awarded, the determination of the number of punitive damages is a matter to be determined by the jury at trial.
Are There Caps on Punitive Damages in South Carolina?
While the amount of punitive damages to be awarded is up to the jury, there are certain limits (or “caps”) on punitive damages under South Carolina law. For example, in the case of an auto accident, the general rule is that punitive damages are capped at the greater of three times the plaintiff’s compensatory damages or $500,000. However, there are circumstances in which this cap can increase to the greater of four times the plaintiff’s compensatory damages or $2 million; and, in some cases (including drunk driving accidents), the cap does not apply at all.
Learn More in a Free and Confidential Consultation
If you have been injured in an accident that you believe was the result of someone else’s negligence or willful, wanton, or reckless conduct, it is important that you discuss your legal rights with a personal injury lawyer as soon as possible. If you are entitled to punitive damages, acting quickly may provide the best opportunity to maximize your financial recovery. To learn more in a free and confidential consultation, please call our Rock Hill, SC law offices at 803-327-1103, or request an appointment online. You pay nothing unless we win your case.