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Punitive Damage Car Accident Settlement: How to Value Punitive Damage Auto Cases

illinois punitive damage law personal injury cases In most cases, the damages that you receive from a jury in a car accident lawsuit will reflect the actual damages that you have suffered. Whether the monetary total represents economic or non-economic damages, the financial compensation that you receive will be tied into the harm.

In some very rare cases, the jury will award that money that has little to do with how you have suffered and everything to do with what the defendant did. In these cases, the jury will award punitive damages to an injured person to send a message that the defendant has acted in a terrible way.

Chicago, IL Car Accident Lawyers Helping Victims Injured Due to Reckless Conduct

When you have a car accident lawsuit that involves possible punitive damages, you need an attorney on your side. Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers could help you as you fight for the compensation that you deserve from your car crash, including punitive damages if they are necessary in your personal injury claim.

Illinois Law on Punitive Damages

In Illinois, the general statement that courts make is that:

“Justified by their deterrent effect, they {punitive damages} may be recovered only in cases where the wrongful act complained of is characterized by wantonness, malice, oppression, or circumstances of aggravation.”

Knierim v. Izzo, 22 Ill.2d 73, 174 N.E.2d 157 (1961).

Without a pulling out a dictionary to define the legalese used by the courts, you should know at the outset that punitive damages are available if the defendant has done something very bad that the court decides is needed to punish in a tort case. The same thing holds true in all forms of personal injury cases.

How Courts Approach Punitive Damages in Illinois Personal Injury Cases

In most cases, courts will take a “nothing but the facts” approach to a case designed to strictly compensate you for the harm that you suffered. However, when a judge or a jury sees extremely bad behavior, they may resort to an “equitable doctrine.”

This means that the court will resort to something extra in the case to restore some ideas of fundamental fairness. It could be something that a court sees and thinks that it is simply not right. This usually results in the court going out of its way to do something to help the plaintiff.

If you are looking for a standard of what would necessitate punitive damages, it would be hard to give one beyond what the court said above. There may not be much rhyme or reason why courts decide that conduct is shocking and bad other than that they know it when they see it. On their surface, some actions by the defendant just look and seem terrible.

The Process for Punitive Damage Claims Under Illinois Injury Law

When you file a complaint seeking damages in a car accident civil claim, you cannot simply request for punitive damages in your initial complaint. 735 ILCS 5/2-604.1 states that you are only allowed to request punitive damages after you have filed a pretrial motion.

After your motion, the court would then need to hold a hearing to consider your request. At this hearing, the court will need to find that there is a reasonable likelihood that you could prove facts at trial that would justify your claim of punitive damages.

This is an acknowledgement of the fact that punitive damages are reserved for a very small group of cases. They are definitely limited in auto accident cases because there are fewer opportunities for drivers to have an evil motive.

If the court does not find that you have a likelihood proving these facts, it will be the end of your claim for punitive damages, unless something shocking would emerge for the first time after that.

When Courts Will Award Punitive Damages in a Car Accident Case

Here are some of the situations in which a jury may award punitive damages in a car accident case:

  • The fault party was a drunk driver who seriously injured a victim. This is the most common example of when punitive damages are available.
  • The defendant was not just speeding, but they were also traveling at a very reckless rate of speed.
  • The defendant was driving with a license that was suspended after numerous traffic violations.
  • There was intentional conduct that exhibited a reckless disregard for the lives of others, such as a game of “chicken” between drivers or motorists racing on city streets and highways or other similar conduct.
  • Punitive damages in car accident cases are not limited to where there is another driver at fault. They could also be awarded in a product liability case if your accident was a result of a defective automobile or auto part.

Some Cases May Be Better Going to Trial Instead of Settling

For you as a plaintiff, it means that some cases should perhaps not be settled before trial. Only a court can award punitive damages, and it is not something that you see in accident settlements.

If you have been involved in an accident where the defendant’s actions were shockingly reckless, you may be better off waiting to take the case to a jury. If you choose to settle the case out of court, make sure that your settlement covers what a jury would have awarded you in punitive damages.

The only constraint on punitive damages is that they must be reasonable and not excessive. In Illinois, the section of the law which added the prior law limiting punitive damages was struck down as unconstitutional. This means that there are few limits on punitive damages in Illinois trials.

When Appeals Courts May Overturn a Punitive Damages Award

In fact, if a jury assessed punitive damages, an appeals court will only overturn or disturb that finding in a handful of circumstances.

An appeals court may look at the following in reviewing a verdict made by a jury:

  • Whether the award was a “result of passion, partiality or corruption”
  • Whether the award was disproportionate to the wrong committed
  • The capacity of the wrongdoer to pay the damages
  • The potential liability of the defendant

Limitations on Illinois Punitive Damages

While Illinois itself does not have any hard caps on punitive damages, the United States Supreme Court has moved into the area recently to provide some governing principles. In particular, the Supreme Court requires an analysis of the degree of reprehensibility and the correlation between punitive damages and the severity of the offense.

For your car accident case, this means that there is no actual cap on punitive damages in terms of any specific numbers. It does mean that the defendant could challenge the award on appeal and ask the court to consider whether the damage award was out of line with their actual fault.

Many punitive damages awards will end up being reduced by the trial judge. If they survive the trial court, appeals courts will often cut punitive damages.

Nonetheless, punitive damages would be uncommon in car accident cases, although there are some circumstances that would allow it. If you were involved in a bad car accident that was the result of extreme misconduct, your personal injury attorney should at least explore the possibility of punitive damages.

If your attorney does seek punitive damages in a car accident case, there are a number of limitations. Here are a few:

  • If the lawsuit is a wrongful death case, there are no punitive damages in this type of legal action.
  • You must have received compensatory damages to trigger punitive damages.
  • Insurance companies will not pay out for punitive damages. The actual defendant will be required to pay this out of their own pocket. This means that a large damage award may go largely uncollected if the defendant does not have the ability to pay.

What Illinois Courts Have to Say About Punitive Damages

First, you should know some general principles that apply to all cases with punitive damages. Then, we will describe a few cases in which the facts of auto accidents led to punitive damages.

With regard to what you need to know:

  • If there is a possibility of punitive damages, the jury will be given Illinois Pattern Jury Instruction 35.01 Punitive/Exemplary Damages--Willful and Wanton Conduct. This Jury Instruction gives all the factors for the jury to consider.
  • In cases where punitive damages are awarded, courts that are reviewing the punitive damages award are looking at “whether the punishment fits the crime.” Mathias v. Accor Economy Lodging, Inc., 347 F.3d 672, 676 (7th Cir. 2003)
  • Punitive damages do not necessarily have to be proportionate to the amount of compensatory damages that the plaintiff receives. This is something that the U.S. Supreme Court said in State Farm v. Campbell, 538 U.S. 408, 123 S.Ct. 1513, 155 L.Ed.2d 585 (2003).
  • However, the Illinois Supreme Court has looked at the issue of proportionality in some cases. For example, in Int'l Union of Operating Eng'rs, Local 150 v. Lowe Excavating Co., the Illinois Supreme Court cut a punitive damages award down from 75 times the compensatory damages to 11 times damages. The Court has also cut damages in other cases where it felt that the award was disproportionate.

Sample Punitive Damage Awards in Chicago, Illinois Car Accident Cases

Below are some examples of how courts have handled punitive damages in Illinois automobile accident cases. If you have questions about your particular situation, contact our law firm for a free consultation with an experienced Chicago, IL car accident attorney.

Here are some punitive damage awards in actual automobile accident cases in Illinois:

Lacourse v. Gago (Cook County 2004)

This case shows how hard it is for a plaintiff to receive punitive damages in a car accident case. Here, the defendant was drinking alcohol before a rear-end car crash. The court allowed the plaintiff to seek punitive damages, but the jury would not award them since there was no evidence that the plaintiff was intoxicated at the time of the accident. In other words, evidence of drinking is not enough.

Penberthy et al v. Price (Cook County 1994)

The two plaintiffs were awarded a combined $100,000 in punitive damages when their total compensatory award was just over $750,000. The driver had a blood alcohol level of.217 at the time of the accident that killed the driver and seriously injured the two plaintiffs. Note that while punitive damages are not available in a wrongful death case, they are still available in a case where the driver at fault died. The plaintiffs would need to file a lawsuit against the estate.

Hyrsko v. Stein (Madison County 2003)

We are including this case here even though the punitive damage award was only $20,000 out of a total verdict of $620,000. The reason why is that this involved an auto accident that was not the result of drunk driving. Here, the defendant left a truck parked in the middle of the road with no lights on at night. This is a level of intentional conduct that would likely be considered recklessness and could warrant punitive damages because the defendant deliberately violated several Illinois state traffic laws.

Donahue v. Robertson (1997)

While we have repeatedly said that the jury must find that the defendant’s conduct must be some degree of terrible to merit punitive damages, juries have different opinions of very bad behavior. Here, two plaintiffs were awarded a total of $3 million in punitive damages when the defendant was pulling out into traffic from the shoulder while towing a boat. This verdict would likely be subject to challenge and reduction by an appeals court.

FAQs About Punitive Damages in Illinois Accident Claims

Here are some answers to some commonly asked questions about punitive damages in Illinois car accident cases and other types of personal injury lawsuits. If you have questions about how the law may apply to your situation, contact our personal injury law firm for a free consultation. We are headquartered in Chicago, IL, but handle cases across Illinois. Our lawyers will come to a location near you.

Is There a cap on Punitive Damages in Illinois in Car Accident Cases?

The only cap on punitive damages in Illinois are the principles that the jury will use to decide on the actual amount of damages. There is no hard and fast rule that gives any kind of numerical limitation on punitive damages.

Is Punitive Damages the Same as Pain and Suffering?

No, these are two very different categories of damages. Pain and suffering compensates you for what you experienced in the accident. Punitive damages punish the defendant for what they did that led to the accident.

How are Punitive Damages Calculated?

There is no set formula for deciding punitive damages. However, they are subject to a general test of reasonableness. They cannot be disproportionate to the offense committed, and the defendant must have the ability to pay them.

What are Punitive Damages in a Lawsuit?

This is an award that the jury makes with the sole purpose of punishing bad conduct by the defendant and to send a message to them that what they did is reprehensible and should never be done.

Why You Need an Illinois Car Accident Attorney

As you can see, there are no assurances of punitive damages in your Chicago or Illinois car accident civil claim. There are numerous stages of the legal proceedings where you would need an attorney to convince the court to award you punitive damages.

From showing the court that there are provable facts to actually proving them, you need a skilled attorney to make the legal showing for you.

Personal Injury Lawyer Helping Accident Victims in Chicago, Naperville, Joliet and all of Illinois

The attorneys at Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers have successfully helped numerous clients who have been injured in auto accidents. We take the time to learn your case, so we can help you maximize your financial compensation. Call our law firm today for a free

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