I’ve discussed at some length in other volumes of these Articles that, in typical personal injury case arising from a motor vehicle accident, two types of damage are recoverable: economic and non-economic. In a truly exceptional, outrageous, situation, a third type of damages might be recoverable: punitive damages.
Maryland law defines punitive damages as those designed to punish a defendant, and offer a disincentive for others to engage in similar conduct in the future.
In order to recover punitive damages, in a car accident scenario, the Plaintiff would need to prove by clear and convincing evidence, the defendant acted with actual malice. The law defines actual malice as “evil motive, intent to injure, or ill will”. Since the overwhelming number of motor vehicle accidents are caused by the negligence, as opposed to the intent, of the at fault party, punitive damages are simply not available in the overwhelming number of cases. This is not to say that the victim of negligence in these situations is not angry, frustrated, offended, or perhaps even outraged. I would suggest that this full gamut of emotions is commonplace. It is not the mental state of the victim that is considered in assessing whether punitive damages are suitable, however, but that of the at-fault party. It is only where an actor has a engaged in deliberate conduct designed to injure, that punitive damages are awardable. In a unique and appropriate case, they may be recoverable.
The victory might be hollow. An injured person would be unlikely to get an insurance company to pay punitive damages. Motor vehicle accident insurance protects a driver from claims based on his or her negligent acts. The typical policy excludes coverage for intentional –e.g. malicious- acts. Maryland’s highest court has decided that driving under the influence of alcohol and causing an accident, alone, is not proof of actual malice, and is insufficient to sustain a request for punitive damages. KOMORNIK v. SPARKS, 331 Md. 720 (1993).
-This Article was updated by Eric Kirk on 9/17/20.