What are punitive damages in SC and how do you get them in a lawsuit?
Below, we will explain SC law on punitive damages, including:
- What punitive damages are,
- What you must prove to get punitive damages, and
- SC’s limits on punitive damages awards.
What are Punitive Damages?
Actual damages, or compensatory damages, are intended to compensate an injured person for their actual losses – including things like medical expenses, compensation for property damage, pain and suffering, lost wages, and other losses that were caused by the negligent party’s actions.
Compensatory damages are intended to “make a person whole,” or put them in the same position they were in before the accident – which is often impossible, but the law does the best it can while it is limited to providing monetary compensation in most cases.
Punitive damages, or exemplary damages, are intended as punishment for egregious conduct, to deter the defendant and others from doing it again.
What is the Purpose of Punitive Damages?
SC law identifies three purposes for exemplary damages:
- Punishment for reckless, willful, wanton, or malicious conduct,
- Deterrence of similar future conduct by the defendant or others, and
- Additional “compensation for the reckless or willful invasion of the plaintiff’s private rights.”
What is the Standard of Proof for Exemplary Damages in SC?
The standard of proof for punitive damages in SC is clear and convincing evidence – the plaintiff must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant’s conduct was “willful, wanton, or in reckless disregard of the plaintiff’s rights.”
What are the Factors in SC for Assessing Punitive Damages?
There is no standard formula for assessing exemplary damages, but SC law provides factors that are relevant, including:
(1) the character of the defendants acts;
(2) the nature and extent of the harm to plaintiff which defendant caused or intended to cause;
(3) defendants degree of culpability;
(4) the punishment that should be imposed;
(5) duration of the conduct;
(6) defendants awareness or concealment;
(7) the existence of similar past conduct;
(8) likelihood the award will deter the defendant or others from like conduct;
(9) whether the award is reasonably related to the harm likely to result from such conduct; and
(10) defendants wealth or ability to pay.
What Types of Cases Allow for Punitive Damages?
Exemplary damages are available in most SC personal injury cases where the defendant’s conduct was “willful, wanton, or in reckless disregard of the plaintiff’s rights,” including assaults, auto accidents, drunk driving accidents, and other types of personal injury cases.
Is There a Limit on Punitive Damages Awards in SC?
Punitive damage awards cannot be “grossly excessive” – if they are grossly excessive, they are unconstitutional because they violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.
The appellate courts will overturn a exemplary damages award if the ratio of punitive damages to actual damages is too high, but there is no hard and fast rule. In general, the courts have said that a single-digit multiplier (where punitives are less than ten times the actuals) is “more likely to comport with due process,” and a ratio of four times the amount of compensatory damages has been consistently upheld.
There are also statutory caps on punitive damages in SC, however, that limit the size of a punitive damages award.
Punitive Damages Caps Under SC Law
SC Code Section 15-32-530 limits punitive damages awards to “the greater of three times the amount of compensatory damages awarded to each claimant entitled thereto or the sum of five hundred thousand dollars.
The jurors are not told about the statutory caps – if their verdict exceeds the caps, the trial judge will then reduce the amount of the verdict. The trial judge is also required to make additional findings that may increase the punitive damages caps.
The trial judge will increase the statutory cap to four times the amount of the compensatory damages or two million dollars, whichever is greater, if the court finds that:
- 1) The wrongful conduct was motivated by unreasonable financial gain and 2) the unreasonably dangerous nature of the conduct and high likelihood of injury resulting from the conduct was known or approved by the defendant or defendant’s agents, or
- The defendant could have been convicted of a felony and that conduct was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s damages.
In some cases, however, the defendant’s conduct is considered bad enough that there are no caps on punitive damages.
Punitive Damages in DUI Accident Cases
There are three situations where there are no caps on exemplary damages in SC.
There are no caps if the trial court finds that:
- The defendant’s conduct was intended to harm the plaintiff (and it did in fact harm the plaintiff),
- The defendant was convicted of a felony (including felony DUI) based on the same conduct that the plaintiff sued over, and that conduct was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s damages, or
- The defendant’s actions (or failure to act) that are the subject of the lawsuit happened while the defendant was under the influence of alcohol or drugs (unless they were taken in accordance with a prescription) “to the degree that the defendant’s judgment is substantially impaired.”
In the case of a DUI accident, the cap on punitive damages may be lifted if the defendant was convicted of felony DUI (#2 above) or even if they were not convicted if the plaintiff proves that they were substantially impaired by alcohol or drugs (#3 above).
This doesn’t just apply to drunk driving accidents, though. In other types of personal injury cases, the cap on punitive damages can be lifted if the defendant’s conduct was intentional, if they were convicted of a felony based on their conduct, or if they were substantially impaired by alcohol or drugs.
Drunk Driving Accident Lawyers in Conway, SC
If you are hurt by a drunk driver in SC, consult with an experienced trial lawyer immediately who can help you to gather the evidence you need to prove liability and damages, to settle your claim for full and fair compensation, and to try your case to a jury if the insurance company doesn’t pay.
Call Johnny Gardner Law now at 843-248-7135 or send us an email through our website to find out how we can help.