Can I Get Punitive Damages in my New Jersey Car Accident Claim?

By Greg Kohn

Punitive damages are in addition to the usual types of compensation that people can seek to recover when they get injured because of someone else’s negligence or wrongful act. The purpose of punitive damages is to punish wrongdoers and give them financial motivation not to repeat their behavior in the future.

A New Jersey car accident attorney can talk to you about your case, including the issue of damages. Let’s explore the question, can I get punitive damages in my New Jersey car accident claim?

New Jersey Law on Punitive Damages

Judges and juries rarely award punitive damages. Most car accidents are unintentional, and the law does not want to overreact to human error. The New Jersey law on punitive damages includes these requirements: 

  • If you want punitive damages awarded in your New Jersey lawsuit, you must specifically ask for punitive damages in your complaint. The complaint is the initial pleading filed with the court to start the lawsuit.
  • The trial court must hold separate proceedings on punitive damages. First, the court will hold a trial on your request for compensatory damages, and rule on the issues of liability and money damages. Only if the initial trial court awards compensatory damages can the plaintiff have a separate trial on punitive damages.
  • If there is more than one defendant in the case, the punitive damages trial judgment must specify the amount of punitive damages, if any, assessable against each defendant. The defendants are not liable for the punitive damages assessed against any other defendant
  • New Jersey limits the amount of punitive damages a jury can award, but the judge and attorneys are not allowed to tell the jury about the cap. If the jury awards punitive damages in excess of the punitive damages cap, the judge will have to reduce the award to an amount that complies with the limit. The punitive damages limit in New Jersey is five times the amount of the compensatory damages or $350,000, whichever number is higher. 

Also, the Model Civil Jury Charge committee suggests that trial judges do not explain to the jury at the beginning of the initial trial that the plaintiff has requested punitive damages.

What the Plaintiff Has to Prove for Punitive Damages

A jury award of punitive damages must be supported by sufficient evidence. The plaintiff must prove these things with clear and convincing evidence:

  • The plaintiff suffered injury, loss, or harm because of the acts or omissions of the defendant, and
  • The defendant’s conduct was malicious or the defendant acted in wanton and willful disregard of the plaintiff’s rights.

Malicious conduct for purposes of punitive damages in New Jersey lawsuits means that the defendant committed wrongdoing intentionally as an evil-minded act. A deliberate act or omission when the defendant knows that it’s highly likely someone else could get harmed by the conduct, and the defendant shows reckless indifference to that outcome can constitute willful or wanton conduct.

Examples of conduct that could justify an award of punitive damages in a New Jersey car accident case include things like road rage or multiple drunk driving crashes that caused fatalities. If you got hurt in a New Jersey car accident that was someone else’s fault, it would be a good idea to talk to a New Jersey personal injury attorney as soon as possible. There is a time limit for going after compensation from the at-fault party. Contact our office today for a free consultation.

About the Author
Greg Kohn is a partner at Nagel Rice and specializes in complex civil litigation cases, including professional malpractice, personal injury, class actions, wrongful death, products liability, and commercial litigation.  He has extensive experience representing clients in both state and federal court. Greg has tried many jury trials to verdict and has recovered over $50 million in settlements and verdicts in all types of personal injury matters including automobile accidents, wrongful death cases, slip and falls, and other catastrophic injury cases. Greg also handles medical malpractice cases, involving misdiagnoses, wrongful birth, and delayed cancer diagnosis. If you have questions regarding this article, you can contact Greg here.