Punitive Damages in Auto Accident Cases

In Arizona, as in other states, punitive damages are awarded only rarely in auto accident lawsuits, though when a punitive damages award is granted by the court, it tends to make a splash in the media.  Punitive damages are awarded on the basis of the compensatory damages in a given lawsuit.  If the compensatory damages amount is significant, the punitive damages award can push the total damages up to a degree that is shocking to some.  Many injury lawsuits that have entered pop-culture have done so on the basis of punitive damage awards that capture the imagination of observers.

For example, suppose that you are injured in a serious auto accident, and your total compensatory damages add up to $500,000.  If the court awards punitive damages in your case (say, three times the compensatory damages), then the total damages will be $2,000,000.  Oftentimes, “million dollar” injury lawsuits involve a punitive damages award.

Punitive damages are quite unlike other forms of damages, so it’s important to understand that a claim for punitive damages is not made on the same basis as a claim for lost wages, or medical expenses.

Punitive Damages Are Unique

Punitive damages function differently than compensatory damages.

A claim for compensatory damages (i.e., pain and suffering, past and future medical expenses, lost earnings, loss of earning capacity, loss of enjoyment of life, etc.) is put forth on the basis that you — the plaintiff — are entitled to financial compensation for your injuries.  Compensatory damages are an attempt to put you in a position that best approximates your pre-injury condition.

Punitive damages, on the other hand, are awarded as a means of punishing the defendant for their wrongdoing and deterring others from similar misconduct in the future.  Punitive damages are not meant to compensate the plaintiff for their injuries (though punitive damages are paid out to the plaintiff).

Qualifying for Punitive Damages

The Arizona Civil Jury Instructions clearly illustrate the requirements for asserting a claim for punitive damages.  Punitive damages may be available if you can show that:

  • The defendant intended to cause your injuries;
  • The defendant’s conduct was motivated by ill will; or
  • The defendant consciously disregarded the substantial risk of injury that his conduct might expose others to.

In the auto accident context, punitive damages may therefore be available in cases where:

  • The defendant was enraged and intentionally rammed your vehicle.
  • The defendant was intoxicated.
  • The defendant was racing on the highway and therefore consciously disregarding the risk of injury posed to the public.
  • And more.

Though punitive damages are rare, they may be awarded in cases where the defendant’s conduct is particularly egregious.

Punitive damages are — perhaps unsurprisingly — rare in the personal injury context, including auto accidents.  Unfortunately, many attorneys mistakenly pre-judge the situation and fail to assert a claim for punitive damages when there may actually be legitimate reasons justifying punitive damages.  When looking for an attorney to advocate on your behalf in an auto accident injury lawsuit, you not only want to find an attorney who has experience successfully litigating auto accidents, but you also want to find an attorney who is bold enough to pursue punitive damages when appropriate.

Hirsch & Lyon is an Arizona personal injury firm that has specialized in auto accident claims, and have secured punitive damage awards in the past.  If you have been injured in an auto accident, call (602) 535-1900 to setup a free consultation with a Phoenix injury lawyer here at Hirsch & Lyon.  Our attorneys will assess your claims and help you execute an effective strategy as you move forward with litigation.

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