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Can I recover punitive damages in a car accident case?

If you sustained injuries in a car accident, you may be seeking to recover compensatory damages to make up for the financial and other losses you suffer. Louisiana courts consider various factors in deciding amounts for compensatory damages in each particular case.

Compensatory damages aim to do just that: compensate you for harm you suffered because of another person's negligence. There also exists another category of damages called punitive, or exemplary, damages.

Purpose of punitive damages

Punitive damages, as their name states, aim to punish particularly bad conduct and thus deter it. Regular negligence sufficient to impose liability for compensatory damages generally does not rise to this level.

Situations that punitive damages are available in a car accident case

Different from many other states, Louisiana has adopted the approach of only imposing punitive damages when an applicable law specifically provides for them. In the context of car accidents, Louisiana law allows for punitive damages in certain cases involving drunk driving. 

Thus, when asking for punitive damages, a plaintiff must generally show the defendant was intoxicated at the time of the crash and also that the intoxication caused the crash. When police officers arrive at the scene, they may conduct a breathalyzer test and observe other evidence of intoxication such as open alcohol containers. Witness testimony can also provide information as to indications the defendant was drunk at the time of the accident.

Relevance of criminal DUI case

In addition to a civil lawsuit, a defendant in this kind of case may also face DUI charges. Like the rest of your civil case, a request for punitive damages will not necessarily depend on the outcome of the DUI case, although a conviction can strongly bolster it. On the other hand, prosecutors may lose the case or make a plea bargain for reasons that may not apply in a civil case.

Rules limiting punitive awards

Most courts limit punitive damages to no more than nine times the actual compensatory damages the plaintiff receives. Within these limits, relevant factors may also include the extent of the harm caused, the degree of wrongdoing and whether the amount is high enough to deter such conduct in the future. Even if a court awards punitive damages, the defendant's insurer may not consent to pay them.

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