WHAT ARE PUNITIVE DAMAGES?
Punitive, also called exemplary, damages are damages the law imposes on a wrongdoer to make an example of him and deter similar conduct in the future. Punitive damages are typically awarded to the plaintiff in cases involving intentional conduct like assault and battery or libel and slander. However, many states allow an injured plaintiff to recover punitive damages when the defendant’s conduct evidenced a “conscious disregard for the rights and safety of others.”
In the context of an automobile accident, this most often arises when one of the drivers is drunk. In such cases, the law says that a person who drinks to the point of intoxication, knowing that he will then operate a motor vehicle while under the influence, is guilty of malicious conduct and, if he injures another while driving drunk, is liable for punitive damages.
You do not need to be convicted of driving under the influence to face punitive damages. Testimony by the other driver or witnesses of intoxication or hospital blood testing results could result in a punitive award even if you are never criminally charged.
Most states still prohibit insurance companies from paying punitive damages awarded against their insured; after all, punitive damages are designed to punish the wrongdoer, a goal that would be thwarted if insurance paid the punishment. Therefore, if you obtain a verdict for pain and suffering damages, economic damages and punitive damages, you may be able to recover the pain and suffering and economic damages portion of the verdict from the other driver’s insurance company but you will have to recover the punitive damages from the other driver himself.