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Punitive Damages in South Carolina

January 9, 2016

Car accident cases can be fatal and traumatic. Typically, the purpose of insurance claims and civil lawsuits following an accident is to compensate the victim for his or her injuries, and to make that person “whole” in the eyes of the law. In certain situations, courts will go above and beyond simply compensating a victim and award additional sums of money to the claimant. Punitive damages refer to monetary awards for extreme, egregious or malicious conduct, or for torts that are intentional or reckless. While these awards have reached the hundreds of millions of dollars in particularly tragic cases, South Carolina has enacted reformation measures to its tort law to place a cap on these awards.

Caps on Punitive Damages

In South Carolina, legislation caps punitive awards through a tiered system of damages. At the bottom level are awards greater than $500,000 or three times the compensatory damages awarded. This tier will likely cover most tort cases. However, if a defendant is deemed motivated by financial gain, or if his or her conduct rises to a felonious level, the award can be increased to the middle tier of either $2 million or four times compensatory damages. In the most extreme cases, where the defendant is found to have intended his or her conduct, if the defendant was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or if the defendant committed a felony arising out of the same act, there is no cap for punitive damages (See S.C. Code § 15-32-510 for the full statute).

Punitive damages are used to discourage the very behavior which brought about the harm. Usually, the sums in punitive damages actions that defendants are forced to pay are so high that other potential defendants take notice. This motivates potential defendants to enact policies and measures to avoid the type of complained of behavior that forced the commencement of the lawsuit in the first place. This may seem beneficial on paper, but in actuality, a tort system with no cap on damages can be counter-intuitive to the spirit underlying why punitive damages are awarded. Opponents of the legislation suggest that the legislation was introduced by corporate lobbyists to reduce the detrimental effects that punitive damage awards have on corporations.

How Does This Statute Affect Automobile Cases?

A jury may be unable to award the damages it thinks are just. Juries consider a variety of factors when deciding whether to award punitive damages in a motor vehicle negligence or car accident lawsuit. Some of the factors include the severity of the harm suffered by the plaintiff, the defendant’s knowledge, the defendant’s ability to pay, the parties’ respective degrees of culpability, and civil or criminal fines and penalties imposed in connection to the underlying acts.

The problem with South Carolina’s legislation is that a defendant may be shielded from paying vast sums of money even though a jury believes it is justified in awarding those sums. The legislation handcuffs the jury’s ability to award damage amounts that the legislature deems are too high.

Call a Skilled Attorney Today

It takes a skilled attorney to properly try a case and obtain the compensation that a victim rightfully deserves. Call the experienced attorneys at The Connell Law Firm, LLC to discuss your case via a free consultation.