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West Virginia Punitive Damage Cap

Posted in Personal injury on May 18, 2020

A damage cap places a limit on how much money a plaintiff can receive for his or her losses during a civil claim such as a personal injury lawsuit. It is a statewide law restricting the total amount of compensation an accident victim can recover. Not all states have damage caps. Those that do typically only cap certain categories of damages or only limit compensation in some types of claims. In West Virginia, the law currently places a cap on punitive damages.

What Are Punitive Damages?

Punitive damages are a type of award a jury grants to punish a defendant rather than compensate a plaintiff. They are in a damage class of their own, separate from economic and noneconomic (compensatory) damages. Not all personal injury cases in West Virginia result in punitive damages. It is an uncommon type of award only given when a jury decides the plaintiff has proven his or her eligibility for punitive damages. This damage type is most common in cases involving a defendant’s wanton disregard or recklessness, such as in a drunk driving car accident claim or criminal assault lawsuit.

West Virginia’s Punitive Damage Cap

West Virginia’s stance on punitive damage caps has changed a few times over the years. For many years, West Virginia did not have a cap on punitive damages. It permitted a jury to decide an appropriate amount of punitive damages based on the victim’s losses and the defendant’s actions without instituting a cap. In 2015, however, West Virginia altered Code 29 to include a damage cap. Section 55-7-29(c) of the West Virginia Code states that the maximum a plaintiff may receive in punitive damages in a civil action is either $500,000 or four times the amount of compensatory damages, whichever is greater.

In 1991, the Supreme Court made a decision in Garnes v. Fleming Landfill, Inc. that changed the way the state courts apply punitive damages. This decision created constitutional due process principles and took away the jury’s unequivocal right to decide the amount of punitive damages awarded to a plaintiff. It required a post-judgment review of punitive damages, granting reasonable constraints on jury discretion. If a review finds a punitive damage award excessive, for example, the panel can reduce the award accordingly.

The ruling in 2015 further restricted a plaintiff’s ability to recover punitive damages in West Virginia. The maximum amount in punitive damages any plaintiff can recover in a case tried after June 8, 2015 is the greater of four times the amount of compensatory damages or $500,000. This is true for cases tried after this date, even if the defendant’s wrongful act occurred or the plaintiff filed before June 8, 2015.

Proving Eligibility for Punitive Damages

To receive any amount in punitive damages during a West Virginia personal injury claim, the plaintiff or his or her lawyer must prove eligibility through clear and convincing evidence. Code 29 states that a plaintiff will only be eligible for punitive damages if the defendant’s conduct occurred with actual malice or an indifference to the safety and health of others that was conscious, reckless and outrageous. The plaintiff must also have received compensatory damages for actual losses sustained. A plaintiff in West Virginia cannot receive punitive damages alone.

A personal injury lawyer in West Virginia could help you prove your eligibility for punitive damages using evidence gathered. A lawyer could also hire experts, accident reconstructionists and others to establish grounds for a punitive damage award. Then, a lawyer can demonstrate your serious losses, as well as the defendant’s malice or criminal indifference, to try to maximize the punitive damages awarded, up to the state’s maximum. If you have grounds for a personal injury suit against a defendant who you believe caused your injuries maliciously, wantonly or recklessly, contact a lawyer for assistance fighting for fair punitive damages.