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Punitive Damages Are Vital, But Not for Everyone

The insurance industry and big business often cry about out-of-control juries making enormous punitive damage awards that threaten American business. Don’t believe the hype. In South Carolina injury cases, punitive damages are pretty rare. And even where large punitive damage awards are made, the big business gets their side of the story heard, too. They just scream louder when the jury doesn’t believe them.

Punitive damages can only be considered where the judge finds evidence to justify them. And in some cases they are not even available, like when the wrongdoer is a state agency. So if a policeman unjustifiably blows through a red light at 20 miles per hour over the speed limit and crashes into you, you cannot get punitive damages—even though you should.

Here’s a summary of how punitive damages work in South Carolina injury cases:

Purpose

The law provides punitive damages in the interest of society by condemning the choice to ignore others’ safety. Punitive damages serve at least three important purposes:

  • To punish wrongdoers for reckless conduct;
  • To deter wrongdoers and others from similar future conduct; and
  • To vindicate the victim’s rights by requiring the wrongdoer to compensate her for recklessly violating those rights.

Proof of recklessness

Punitive damages can only be given where the victim proves by clear and convincing evidence the wrongdoer acted recklessly. Recklessness is more than just being careless. Recklessness is legally defined as conscious indifference to, or disregard for, the safety of another. In other words, it’s ignoring the safety of others, or knowing you’re wrong but still doing it anyway, regardless of consequences.

One of the best ways to justify punitive damages is proving similar past conduct by the wrongdoer hurt someone besides you, like proving a company knew it sold a dangerous product because it hurt someone before it hurt you. Another way to prove recklessness can be showing the wrongdoer broke the law in hurting you. For example, in a car accident case, proving the at-fault driver caused the crash by driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs should justify asking the jury for punitive damages

You might also have the right to punitive damages if you prove you got hurt by a company violating its own policies. That could happen in a trip and fall case where you trip over a defective mat; when you find out during the discovery period before trial that the store had a written policy against using defective mats, but employees put one down anyway, that strengthens your ability to request punitive damages.

Amount

The jury sets the amount of punitive damages if they find the victim entitled to them. There is no formula for calculating punitive damages, but South Carolina law does provide some factors to consider. Some of the most important factors include:

  • The character of the wrongdoer's acts: How bad the wrongdoer acted
  • The harm the wrongdoer caused: How severely you got hurt as a result
  • The wrongdoer's awareness or concealment of his conduct
  • Similar past conduct

Insurance companies fight potential punitive damages claims hard.

If you feel you might have a case where you should get punitive damages, feel free to contact us for a free meeting to discuss whether we can help you develop clear evidence to give you additional compensation for ignoring your safety. Feel free to start a live chat or email right where you are. You can always call us at 864.582.0416 or toll-free at 888.230.1841.

 

Rob Usry
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Rob is a South Carolina personal injury and criminal defense lawyer.

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