Punitive Damages

The Chicago Injury Attorneys of Zneimer & Zneimer P.C. know that being involved in a car accident can leave a victim with numerous questions regarding their entitlement to financial compensation. A common inquiry following an auto wreck is whether Illinois law allows for the recovery of punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages. The short and simple answer to this is ‘yes,’ however there are limitations. In other words, punitive damages are not available in all personal injury actions extending from a motor vehicle collision, but can be awarded depending on the circumstances involved. Punitive damages, also referred to as ‘exemplary damages’ vary greatly from other types of damage awards.

In contrast to compensatory damages, which are intended to compensate a victim for the harms caused by a wrongdoer, punitive damages are intended to punish a defendant for their wrongful acts. Deterrence is the primary focus of an award for punitive damages—both in regard to the defendant’s future conduct, as well as the future conduct of others. Punitive damages serve to prevent or limit future misconduct, by imposing an added level of financial liability on a defendant for their misconduct.

“Where punitive damages may be assessed, they are allowed in the nature of punishment and as a warning and example to deter the defendant and others from committing like offenses in the future.” Kelsay v. Motorola, Inc., 74 Ill.2d 172, 186, 23 Ill.Dec. 559, 384 N.E.2d 353 (1978)

Given their penal nature, punitive damages are only available where the defendant’s conduct extends beyond mere oversight, or simple negligence. The standard of conduct required to obtain punitive damages varies from state to state. In Illinois, punitive damages can be awarded based upon the defendant’s intentional or malicious conduct, as well as reckless or outrageous disregard/indifference for the rights or safety of others. In example, a defendant that causes an accident while driving under the influence can be held liable for punitive damages.

Punitive damages may also be awarded following a car accident that was caused due to a faulty or defective vehicle component, such as an electrical failure or airbag defect that the manufacturer knew or should have known was capable of causing harm. Here, a plaintiff seeking punitive damages in a product liability action, generally must show that the manufacturer acted, failed to act, or otherwise engaged in a course of conduct amounting to flagrant indifference or conscience disregard for the safety of others, and as a result the plaintiff sustained injury.

In Illinois, punitive damages have also been awarded in cases where an insurer is found to have acted in bad faith in dealing with the resolution of valid claims presented by an insured. Insurance companies have a duty to act in good faith, which requires them to give as much consideration to the policyholder’s interests as is given to their own interests. Consequently, denying coverage or failing to settle, coupled with an unequal balancing of interests, can provide grounds for the recovery of punitive damages based upon bad faith.

Apart from the defendant’s conduct, there are many other factors to take into consideration when it comes to punitive damage awards. First, an award for punitive damages must accompany an award for compensatory damages. In other words, the plaintiff must be entitled to actual damages in order to recover punitive damages. Second, punitive damages may not be awarded in legal actions; claims against the government; and in most wrongful death actions. Third, collecting punitive damages where the defendant is a private party (i.e. drunk driver) can present challenges, because most insurance policies limit coverage to compensatory damages, therefore leaving the defendant personally responsible for the payment of punitive damages. For this reason, punitive damage requests are typically better-suited for claims against defendants that have the financial ability to pay (i.e. product liability directed against a manufacturer; bad faith claims directed at an insurance company).

Properly evaluating a victim’s entitlement to punitive damages requires a case-specific analysis and thorough understanding of Illinois law. Claims requesting an award for punitive damage involve different procedures and standards of law, and can be difficult to obtain. Consequently, assessing your case is just one component—obtaining punitive damages requires the skill and expertise of an experienced trial attorney.

With decades of litigation experience, Zneimer & Zneimer P.C. has the legal-know how to secure the compensation you deserve. If you were involved in a car accident, contact our Chicago Personal Injury Attorneys at 773-516-4100 to schedule your FREE personal injury consultation today.

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