Punitive Damages in Maryland Car Accident Cases

For those who have been injured in a Maryland car accident, understanding the types of available damages that can be recovered in a personal injury lawsuit is essential. Generally, damages are divided into two categories:  compensatory and punitive damages. Simply stated, compensatory damages are focused on the harms caused to the plaintiff, whereas punitive damages are focused on deterring the defendant’s behavior that resulted in the plaintiff’s injuries.

Compensatory damages are very common, and they are awarded in almost all successful car accident cases. These include damages based on past medical expenses, lost wages, and emotional harm, such as pain and suffering. Punitive damages are much less common in Maryland. To obtain a punitive damages award, a plaintiff must show that the defendant exhibited “actual malice.” Thus, a plaintiff cannot receive a punitive damages award by showing mere negligence, or even recklessness. Not only that, but also the showing of actual malice must be established by clear and convincing evidence – a higher evidentiary standard than is typically applied in personal injury cases.

A recent case illustrates the type of situation that may result in an award of punitive damages.

The Facts

According to the court’s opinion, the plaintiff was seriously injured in a head-on car accident when an oncoming motorist attempted to pass another vehicle. Specifically, the plaintiff’s heel bone shattered, leaving him with ongoing pain and a limited range of motion. His heel was also visually deformed.

The at-fault driver was killed in the collision, but the plaintiff received $50,000 from that driver’s insurance company. However, since the plaintiff sustained such serious injuries, the $50,000 did not completely cover the plaintiff’s expenses. Thus, the plaintiff filed a claim with his own insurance company, under the underinsured motorist provision, seeking an additional $50,000. In support of his claim, the plaintiff consulted with a medical doctor, who testified that the injury to the plaintiff’s heel was devastating and that surgery was not a good option.

The plaintiff’s insurance company requested that the plaintiff undergo an independent medical evaluation. The insurance company determined that the full value of the plaintiff’s claim was just over $50,000, and it offered to settle the plaintiff’s claim for $1,000. The company increased that amount to $18,000, but the plaintiff rejected the offer. At this point, it had been four years since the accident, and the plaintiff was still experiencing pain. The plaintiff presented the insurance company with additional medical records, but the company refused to pay the requested $50,000. The case went to arbitration, at which the plaintiff was awarded the $50,000 he was seeking.

The plaintiff then filed a bad-faith action against the insurance company, and he was awarded over $300,000 in compensatory damages for his “mental suffering, anxiety, and emotional distress” and $4 million in punitive damages. Under state statute, the court reduced the punitive damages award to $1 million.

On the insurance company’s appeal, the verdict was upheld. The court explained that, to obtain a punitive damages award, a plaintiff must prove by “clear and convincing evidence” that the defendant “has been guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice.” Here, the court held that the claims agent “cherry-picked” certain medical records supporting the insurance company’s position, while ignoring the records supporting the plaintiff’s position. The court explained that this conduct justified the punitive damages award.

Have You Been Injured in a Maryland Car Accident?

If you or a loved one has recently been injured in a car accident, you may be entitled to monetary compensation for the injuries you have sustained. At Lebowitz & Mzhen, LLC, we have over 20 years of experience representing victims and their families in personal injury cases against those who are responsible for their injuries. To learn more, call 410-654-3600 to schedule a free consultation.

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