Typically when we talk about damages in a personal injury case, such as a lawsuit arising from a car accident, we mean “compensatory damages.” This refers to money awarded to compensate the accident victim for her economic and non-economic losses. As New York’s Court of Appeals has explained, “Compensatory damages are intended to have the wrongdoer make the victim whole—to assure that the victim receive fair and just compensation commensurate with the injury sustained.”
In contrast, punitive damages are a separate award intended to punish the wrongdoer and send a message to others who might engage in similar misconduct. Punitive damages are not available in every case. New York law sets a high bar before a plaintiff can even seek punitive damages. For one thing, there must be intentional wrongdoing. A routine car accident will not give rise to a punitive damages claim. There must be intentional wrongdoing on the part of one driver. Beyond that, according to the Court of Appeals, “Punitive damages are permitted when the defendant's wrongdoing is not simply intentional but ‘evince[s] a high degree of moral turpitude and demonstrate[s] such wanton dishonesty as to imply a criminal indifference to civil obligations.”
Drunk Driving May Justify Punitive Damages
One factor that may justify a punitive damages award in New York is drunk driving. That is not to say a victim may seek punitive damages just because a driver was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the accident. To meet the Court of Appeals’ standard, there must be evidence that the drunk driving “evinces a high degree of moral turpitude.”
For instance, in a 2003 case, the Appellate Division, First Department, upheld a jury’s award of punitive damages to a Long Island motorcycle accident victim. The victim was hit by a drunk driver. More precisely, the victim was struck by a car operated by a driver with a blood alcohol level of 0.42%, which the First Department noted was “the highest such level ever recorded by the Suffolk County District Attorney's office.” Even with that dubious distinction, the appeals court still reduced the jury’s award of punitive damages from $7 million to $1 million.
More recently, the First Department held that the victim of a rear-end collision in Manhattan could seek punitive damages against a drunk driver with a blood-alcohol level of 0.27%, which is still more than three times the legal limit under New York law. The court noted the defendant’s own testimony that he “consumed alcohol in New Jersey and then drove to Manhattan,” and subsequently had no recollection of the accident. Based on this information, the court said the plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages “is not devoid of merit,” although it will ultimately be a question for a jury to decide.