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Obtaining punitive damages in West Virginia personal injury cases

In our last post, we spoke briefly about the issue of aggressive driving and the unnecessary harm that can result from it. As we noted, it is important for victims of aggressive driving to understand that they have a right to seek several types of compensation for their injuries, including possible punitive damages.

Punitive damages are not available in just any car accident cases, but only those in which particularly egregious behavior is involved. In other words, ordinary negligence does not qualify a plaintiff for punitive damages. West Virginia case law has established that punitive damages may only be awarded where the defendant acted with "gross fraud, malice, oppression, or wanton, willful or reckless conduct or criminal indifference to civil obligations." So, in cases where the defendant can prove that he or she acted in accord with a legal right or without any malice, no punitive damages may be granted.

In terms of the burden of proof, a plaintiff must demonstrate malice by a preponderance of the evidence, showing that it is more likely than not that the defendant acted with maliciously. Another important point is that punitive damages are only available when compensatory damages are awarded. So, in cases where there are no compensatory damages awarded, either because there were no compensable injuries or no injuries deemed to have been caused by the actions of the defendant, no punitive damages are available.

Obtaining punitive damages in personal injury cases is not easy, but those who have been seriously harmed by an individual who acted with malice should work with an experienced attorney to ensure their rights and interests are advocated in court. Doing so will give them the best opportunity for recovery of both compensatory and punitive damages, if the latter are available.

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