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Guide to Punitive Damages Personal Injury

Personal injury claims in South Carolina seek to compensate accident victims for their losses following an accident. These losses are often financial in nature, although some of them are non-economic and more subjective. The fact is that accidents are expensive. In addition to medical care and property damage, many people cannot work. They also deserve money for their pain. 

At Surasky Law, we always strive for maximum compensation in settlements. We are also prepared to seek punitive damages, where the circumstances allow. These are a special type of damages, which are available in some (but not all) accident cases. If the defendant’s conduct was particularly egregious, we can increase the amount of compensation you take home, so call us to speak to a personal injury lawyer today. 

Damages in a Personal Injury Case 

Most damages are compensatory in nature. The goal is to make you “whole.” There are two types of compensatory damages: 

Specific damages—These are financial losses, such as medical care, rehabilitation, lost income or wages, property damage, car damage, and any other loss you can measure in dollars and cents. You should have bills or receipts which spell out how much you spent or lost. 

General damages—Unlike specific damages, these are not financial in nature. General damages are things like pain and suffering, disability, disfigurement, loss of consortium, and mental anguish. Of course, money can’t really make up for bodily pain or disability, but it’s what a court can force a defendant to give you. 

Then, there are punitive damages, also called “exemplary damages” in South Carolina. 

The Purpose of Punitive Damages 

Compensatory damages seek to compensate victims for what they have lost. Punitive damages are different. Their main purpose is to punish the defendant for conduct that goes beyond mere negligence. The law recognizes that some defendants behave in a reprehensible fashion and should be punished accordingly. 

Punitive damages also deter the defendant from ever committing these acts again. They should deter members of the public, as well, who are on notice that they might have to pay punitive damages, too. 

An accident victim can only receive punitive damages if they show the defendant acted in a reckless, willful, or wanton manner. That type of conduct is more serious and blameworthy than mere carelessness. 

Here are some examples of when punitive damages do, and do not, apply: 

  • A driver looks down at their dash for a second and accidentally slides over the center line, striking a car. This is merely negligent conduct. It was a brief lapse, which most of us commit at one time or another. Consequently, the defendant probably won’t pay punitive damages. 

  • A driver is intoxicated and cannot control their vehicle, so they crash head on into oncoming traffic. Driving while drunk is more culpable conduct, so the defendant probably needs to pay punitive damages to victims. 

  • A driver intentionally crashes into her ex-boyfriend’s car, injuring him. This is intentional conduct—even criminal conduct. The defendant should pay punitive damage to the victim. 

Can You Receive Punitive Damages? 

Again, not all personal injury cases qualify for punitive damages. When a defendant is negligent, the law allows you to receive compensatory damages (specific and general), as explained above. Punitive damages are reserved for that class of accidents where the defendant’s conduct was especially blameworthy. 

  1. Merely negligent: Defendant should pay specific and general compensatory damages. These cover medical care, lost income, and pain and suffering. 

  2. More blameworthy: Defendant should pay specific, general, and punitive damages. 

Some defendants are exempted from punitive damages. For example, you can’t get them if you are hurt by a government employee. Essentially, the state has exempted themselves. 

If you have questions, talk with an experienced Aiken, SC personal injury attorney. Our firm has sought punitive damages for many types of lawsuits. By far, most punitive cases involve DUI accidents, where a drunk or high motorist has crashed into you, causing serious bodily injuries. 

Determining Punitive Damages 

South Carolina lays out a process for determining punitive damages at trial. First, the jury must determine liability—that is, who is responsible for the accident. 

If the defendant is liable, then the jury moves on to consider whether the defendant must pay punitive damages. The jury also decides the amount. According to South Carolina Code § 15-32-520, a jury may consider multiple factors, such as: 

  • The severity of the victim’s injuries; 

  • The defendant’s share of culpability; 

  • Whether the defendant’s actions were also criminal; 

  • The defendant’s previous conduct; 

  • Whether the defendant made money from the conduct; 

  • The defendant’s resources to pay; 

  • How much will deter the defendant from committing the same conduct, and 

  • Other factors.  

South Carolina’s Cap on Punitive Damages 

Over the years, some juries awarded huge punitive damages awards. For that reason, South Carolina has created punitive damage caps, found at Section 15-32-530 of the South Carolina Code. 

You can receive the greater of: 

  • Three times your compensatory damages, or 

  • $500,000, adjusted each year for inflation. (As of 2024, the amount is now $699,761). 

For example, your actual damages might be $50,000. You can receive the greater of three times this amount ($150,000) or the statutory hard cap, which is $699,761. 

If your actual damages are $400,000, then you can receive 3 times this amount ($1.2 million), which is higher than the statutory “hard” cap. 

The cap doesn’t apply in certain situations. For example, if the defendant injured you criminally, then there is no limit. For example, a person might have intentionally struck you, which is an assault. The cap is suspended in that case. 

Also, accidents involving alcohol or drugs have no cap on punitive damages. This exception is particularly relevant in drunk driving accidents, where we can ask a jury to award an amount that’s fair. 

Speak with an Experienced South Carolina Personal Injury Lawyer 

Seeking punitive damages is a critical way accident victims can protect public safety and obtain justice from a defendant. Please call Surasky Law today to discuss your case. We offer a free consultation where we can discuss compensatory and punitive damages and answer any of your questions. 


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