There are two major types of damages that can be recovered in an auto accident lawsuit. They are compensatory and punitive damages. Compensatory damages are money awards paid by the negligent driver to the driver and passengers of the other car to compensate for their losses.

Compensatory damages should cover all of the typical losses from an auto accident that can be proven, such as:

  • The cost to repair or replace a damaged auto; damages to repair or replace an auto might include the cost of renting a replacement auto while repair work is done.
  • A person injured by a negligent driver could expect to get damages to pay the costs of medical care; those costs might be for doctors, medicines, hospital stays or therapy.
  • If a person injured in an auto accident cannot do their job, they can be compensated for their lost wages.
  • An injured driver or passenger can also claim compensation for their pain and suffering.

It is also possible to collect compensation for losses that will be experienced in the future. For example, in the worst cases, a person might not be able to work at the same kind of job they had before the accident. They can then collect for any financial loss this causes.

An injured driver might require long-term care in a nursing facility. The negligent driver can expect to pay for the cost of long-term care. An expert may have to be consulted to provide a reliable estimate of the amount of these future losses.

Can I Recover Punitive Damages?

Punitive damages are additional money that negligent drivers have to pay if they demonstrated intentional misconduct or extreme recklessness. Extreme recklessness would include conduct such as speeding well above the speed limit.

Most auto accidents involve only simple negligence. Simple negligence is something such as not stopping in time to avoid hitting the car in front of you at a red light. If the driver who caused the accident did something that is only simple negligence, the injured driver probably will not collect punitive damages.

However, punitive damages (also called “exemplary damages”) might be awarded if the negligent driver engaged in:

  • Gross violations of traffic laws and road rules;
  • Driving while intoxicated (DUI or DWI);
  • Incompetence (especially if the driver is unlicensed); and
  • Driving while knowing that the car was in poor condition.

The goal of punitive damages is to punish a negligent driver for gross misconduct. They are additional to compensatory damages, so if an injured driver’s car was not damaged or the driver was not injured, the driver would not be awarded punitive damages.

Also, some states place a limit on the amount of punitive damages that can be awarded. Usually such a limit states that punitive damages must be “relatively proportionate” to the compensatory damages. This means that the punitive damages must be reasonable when compared to compensatory damages. If a driver is awarded compensatory damages of $3,500, for example, then the driver might expect punitive damages of $350,000, but not $3,500,000. An award of millions would not be proportionate to the compensatory damage award.

What Is Comparative Fault?

The law regarding comparative fault means that when assigning blame for an accident, the fault of both parties must be taken into account. A negligent driver might have caused the accident, but the other driver might have contributed also. So it has to be determined what the relative fault of each driver was. Was one driver 90 per cent at fault and the other 10 percent? Or was one driver 60 per cent at fault and the other 40 per cent?

Suppose the accident happened in a parking lot. The negligent driver pulled out of a parking space and struck the other driver. The other driver had the right of way; the negligent driver should have stopped to allow the other driver to pass before pulling out. But the other driver was looking at their cell phone; they could have stopped to avoid the accident but they were not paying attention. The court could decide that the other driver who was driving through the parking lot was at fault also, along with the negligent driver.

There are two possibilities in cases such as these. The court might reduce an award of compensatory damage to the driver who is less at fault by the amount of that fault. In some states, the finding of fault attributable to the other driver will lead to no award of compensatory damages. In most states, however, the amount of compensatory damages will not be eliminated, just reduced. An expert may be consulted to determine the relative (or comparative) fault of each driver and the amount of compensatory damages that should be awarded.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help Recovering Damages in an Automobile Accident Lawsuit?

It is a good idea to have a personal injury lawyer represent you in an auto accident lawsuit. A lawyer can ensure that the negligent driver’s insurance company pays you the full amount of damages you are entitled to.

A lawyer may recognize when you need to consult an expert about fault or the amount of damages. If a lawsuit is necessary, lawyers know how to prepare legal documents that meet all of the court’s technical requirements.