South Carolina law does limit punitive damages in accident cases, but there are exceptions you need to know.

South Carolina Punitive Damage Award Limits for Most Cases

For most accident cases, South Carolina limits punitive damage awards to the greater of three times the actual damages or $500,000. So, if you get $100,000 in actual damages, the most you can get in punitive damages is $500,000. If you get $200,000 in actual damages, the most punitive damages you can get is $600,000—three times the actual damages of $200,000.

The jury isn’t told about this limit. I’m about to tell you why.

Exceptions to Increase the Limit

If the jury comes back with a punitive damages award higher than the limit, the judge can increase the limit to the greater of four times actual damages or $2,000,000, if the judge determines:

  1. The defendant’s wrongful conduct was motived primarily by greed, and the defendant acted unreasonably dangerous with a high likelihood of injury resulting from it, with the knowledge or approval of high-ranking employees or supervisors, or
  2. The defendant could be subjected to a felony conviction for the act or conduct that caused the accident.

In this scenario, if the jury awarded $1 million in actual damages and $10 million in punitive damages, the judge could allow $4 million in punitive damages—four times the actual damages of $1 million. If the jury gave $100,000 in actual damages and $5 million in punitive damages, the judge could allow $2 million in punitive damages.

Exceptions That Eliminate the Limit

If the trial judge determines one of the following occurred, there is no limit on punitive damages:

  1. The accident occurred because the defendant was under the influence of alcohol or drugs. This is often the most likely exception, usually due to a drunk driver who causes a car accident, which might result in a dram shop action or lawsuit against any bars or restaurants we can prove overserved the DUI driver.
  2. The defendant intended to harm you.  Warning: This usually gets cases excluded from insurance coverage, which pays most settlements. You’ve got to be extremely cautious in most cases to avoid this since most defendants can’t pay from their own pockets. You don’t want to hit a grand slam but break your back in the process.
  3. The defendant was convicted of a felony for the act or conduct that hurt you.

Cases Where Punitive Damages Are Unavailable

South Carolina law shields some defendants from punitive damages, no matter what. In these cases, actual damages are also limited. So, the law’s against you, and these entities also have insurance companies to make it worse on you—working to grind down the settlement you can get.

The lucky defendants who get a free pass for recklessness include:

  • Government offices. This includes car accidents caused by city, county, or state employees while driving government vehicles (including the police) or falls at public buildings owned by cities, counties, or states. It also includes public schools. And here’s a shocker. The definition of “government entity” is so broad it includes agencies you might never think—like some hospitals.
  • Charities. Again, the law is very broad, defining “charity” as any tax-exempt organization. That includes most charities, but also churches.

While these organizations are largely good and necessary, all these laws really do is protect their insurance companies from paying what they should to innocent victims. That includes government offices—generally, taxpayers don’t foot the bill for accident and injury settlements. As we all know, the government and even the best charity are run by people, and people sometimes ignore safety, causing life-changing injuries or even wrongful death. These groups shouldn’t be any less responsible, but this is a situation where the law is what it is.

Punitive Damages Are Complicated. Get Professional Help to Build Your Case.

If you’ve got a case potentially involving punitive damages in South Carolina, here’s our three-step process to evaluate it:

  1. We customize your case to determine whether it fits the legal purpose of punitive damages.  
  2. We analyze fault to determine if we can prove whether it rises to the level of “recklessness” required to get punitive damages.
  3. To estimate the potential punitive damages value, if we evaluate your case under the microscope of the 12 factors South Carolina law gives for setting the amount of punitive damages.

Whether your case involves punitive damages or not, our goal is to always maximize the value if we both decide you and your case are the right fit for us. To get started on that, call toll-free at 888-230-1841 or fill out a Get Help Now form or you can schedule a FREE, EASY strategy session. Also, if you’re wondering what it’s like to work with us, look no further: go to these websites we don’t own—an attorney review website and Google +.

Rob Usry
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Rob is a Spartanburg personal injury lawyer. Rob also practices as a criminal defense attorney.