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Punitive damages: when are they available in motor vehicle accident cases?

In motor vehicle accident cases, part of building a strong case is evaluating the types of damages for which the accident victim may be eligible and seeking to maximize those damages. Ordinarily, an accident victim will be eligible for compensatory damages in the form of lost wages, medical bills, pain and suffering and other types of damages related to the plaintiff’s injuries and other losses.

In our last post, we mentioned that violation of federal safety regulations, by a truck driver or a trucking employer, could potentially open up the possibility of an additional type of damages. We are referring to punitive damages, the general purpose of which is not to compensate the accident victim but to punish the plaintiff in a civil context. Punitive damages are not available in just any case, but only under certain circumstances. 

A plaintiff is only entitled to punitive damages in Kentucky when he or she is able to prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that the defendant acted with “oppression, fraud or malice.” By this is meant that the defendant must have acted with more than mere negligence. His or her conduct must have been intentional, and must have the added character of being abusive, fraudulent or aimed at harming the victim.

One important point of law to note is that employers may not be liable for punitive damages based on the actions of an employee unless it can be shown that the employer authorized or ratified the actions of the employee, or at least that the employer should have anticipated the employee’s conduct. Plaintiffs should therefore seek punitive damages against an employer by looking for some sort of evidence that the employer was an active part of the intentional violations of safety rules, or the covering up of such violations.

In our next post, we’ll look at some of the factors to be considered when determining the amount of punitive damages a plaintiff who is eligible for them should be awarded. 

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