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Shapiro, Appleton & Washburn
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Plaintiffs—that is, victims—in North Carolina personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits can recover punitive damages. According to Chapter 1D of the North Carolina General Statutes (N.C.G.S.), the monetary noncriminal penalties against the individual or organization that caused the injury or death are assessed “to punish a defendant for egregiously wrongful acts and to deter the defendant and others from committing similar wrongful acts.”

Winning punitive damages is not easy, however. They can only be assessed after a two-part jury trial and when specific findings of fact are reached.

What Makes a Responsible Party Liable for Paying Punitive Damages?

Jurors for a personal injury or wrongful death trail in North Carolina can only award punitive damages after they decide that the defendant inflicted harm as a result of acting with “malice” or by engaging in “willful or wanton conduct.” The law further states that in order to receive punitive damages a victim “must prove the existence of an aggravating factor by clear and convincing evidence” and that a corporation can only be held liable for punitive damages if “the officers, directors, or managers of the corporation participated in or condoned the conduct constituting the aggravating factor.”

Malice is understood to mean intent. A person who threatens harm and then inflicts an injury can be made to pay punitive damages.

Willful or wanton conduct can mean acting in a reckless manner or knowingly ignoring the probable harms of an action. Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is the reckless behavior that most often makes a person liable for paying punitive damages in North Carolina. Corporations whose leadership continue producing and selling items with known defects or dangerous ingredients can be assessed punitive damages for willfully putting consumers’ lives and health at risk.

Last, the statute explains that malice or willful or wanton conduct would the aggravating factor that justifies awarding punitive damages. It does not necessarily matter that, say, drunk or drugged driving is a crime. It only matters that doing so is reckless. Similarly, committing a regulatory violation does not itself make a corporation liable for punitive damages, but failing to protect consumers by intentionally failing to fix defects or provide clear and appropriate warnings about health risks could.

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How Does a North Carolina Jury Decide to Award Punitive Damages?

Chapter 1D of the N.C.G.S. specifies a “bifurcated trial” for the award of punitive damages. First, jurors must find for the injured or deceased victim and specify compensatory damages. These economic and noneconomic awards can be for medical expenses, lost wages and pain and suffering.

Then, jurors must separately consider the question of whether to award punitive damages. During this second phase, members of the jury generally consider the each of following nine issues that apply to the case:

  • The reprehensibility of the defendant’s motives and conduct.
  • The likelihood, at the relevant time, of serious harm.
  • The degree of the defendant’s awareness of the probable consequences of its conduct.
  • The duration of the defendant’s conduct.
  • The actual damages suffered by the claimant.
  • Any concealment by the defendant of the facts or consequences of its conduct.
  • The existence and frequency of any similar past conduct by the defendant.
  • Whether the defendant profited from the conduct.
  • The defendant’s ability to pay punitive damages, as evidenced by its revenues or net worth.

The list appears in Chapter 1D.

Does North Carolina Cap Punitive Damage Awards?

With one very notable exception, jurors are limited by law to giving punitive damage awards of three times the total award for compensatory damages or $250,000, whichever is greater. The exception comes when the defendant can be proven to have caused the plaintiff’s injury or death while driving drunk or stoned. Victims of intoxicated drivers can be awarded more than $250,000 in punitive damages.

In all cases, however, the judge overseeing the personal injury or wrongful death trial has the authority to review and lower a punitive damage award. This can be done to reduce a jury’s award to the statutory cap or to account for factors jurors may have ignored.

EJL

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