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Punitive Damages in Car Accident Cases in Albuquerque, NM

Offered by Keller & Keller

In New Mexico and throughout the country, most car accidents are the result of simple carelessness or negligence. However, there are some that cross the line into truly wanton and reckless conduct. In those circumstances, it’s sometimes possible to pursue punitive damages – and that can make a dramatic difference in the outcome of your case.

However, getting punitive damages in a car or truck accident claim is not easy. There are specific legal standards that must be met, and you need an experienced car accident attorney to make the case.

What are punitive damages?

Put simply, punitive damages are cash awards paid to the plaintiff (the injured person) intended to punish the defendant and deter future conduct. If a case results in a punitive damage award, then the jury’s intent is to send a strong message that this sort of behavior will not be tolerated in New Mexico.

Punitive damages are distinct from compensatory damages, which are intended to make the victim financially whole again after the accident. Examples of compensatory damages include medical expenses, lost income, property damage, and pain and suffering.

What’s required to award punitive damages in New Mexico?

Again, there are specific legal criteria that must be met for a car accident claim to qualify for punitive damages. For a judge to allow a punitive damage award, your attorney must show that at least one of the following criteria is met:

  • Malicious conduct: There was an intentional wrongful act done – that is, the driver knew what they were doing was wrong and did it anyway.
  • Willful conduct: The at-fault driver intentionally engaged in an action that they knew could cause harm to others.
  • Reckless conduct: The driver who caused the accident was acting with “utter indifference” to the consequences of their actions.
  • Wanton conduct: The at-fault driver showed total indifference or a conscious disregard of others’ rights or safety.

All car accident claims – whether they involve punitive damages or not – are based on the concept of a “duty of care.” Under New Mexico law, every motorist owes other road users a basic duty of care to not endanger their safety. Most car accidents are simply caused by negligence – that is, carelessly failing to meet that duty of care. Punitive damages are applied when the driver goes beyond simple negligence and shows utter indifference or conscious disregard for the safety of others.

What types of car accident claims can result in punitive damages?

Punitive damages are more common in certain scenarios that inherently involve extreme negligence, such as head-on collisions where one driver was going the wrong way or intersection accidents where someone blew through a red light or arrow. There are several circumstances that can support a punitive damages case in New Mexico:

  • Drunk or impaired driving: Likely the most common reason punitive damages are awarded in car accident cases is because the accident was caused by a drunk driver. Knowingly driving under the influence is a clear example of willful or reckless conduct. New Mexico has a serious drunk driving problem – each year, about 40 percent of fatal crashes in the state are caused by impaired drivers – so juries are highly motivated to send a strong message to those who drive under the influence.
  • Aggressive driving and road rage: As defined by the NHTSA, aggressive driving is “operating a motor vehicle in a manner that endangers or is likely to endanger persons or property.” Road rage is a term for behavior at the extreme end of the aggressive driving range, including threatening or even actively attempting to harm other road users. Many aggressive driving behaviors can meet the legal standard for punitive damages because they involve conscious disregard for the safety of others.
  • Extremely reckless driving: If a motorist drives in an exceptionally reckless manner – for instance, driving on the sidewalk or intentionally going the wrong way down a one-way street – then a New Mexico court may conclude they were showing utter indifference to the safety of others.
  • Manufacturers & maintenance: Not all punitive damage awards are against individual motorists. If a court concludes that a company that manufactured or maintained a vehicle acted with reckless disregard for safety, they could be held responsible for accidents involving that vehicle.

This is not an exhaustive list. Ultimately, only an attorney can tell you whether your case is likely to qualify for punitive damages.

Is there a cap on punitive damages in New Mexico?

There is no legal cap on punitive damages for car accident cases in New Mexico. There is also no specific formula to determine the number of punitive damages. It comes down to what the jury decides.

Are punitive damages taxable in New Mexico?

Unlike most types of compensatory damages, which are considered reimbursement for losses rather than taxable “income,” punitive damages are usually taxable under both New Mexico and federal law. If your case involves both punitive and compensatory damages, your attorney should ask the court to itemize the verdict so you will only be taxed on the taxable portions of the award.

Does insurance cover punitive damages?

The short answer is “yes,” punitive damages should be covered by the at-fault driver’s liability insurance. Unfortunately, in New Mexico, many motorists have only the minimum coverage – $25,000 per person and $50,000 per accident – which is often inadequate for punitive damage awards. However, if the at-fault driver doesn’t have insurance, or doesn’t have enough to cover the damages, then your uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage, if you have it, should also cover punitive damages.

Again, only an attorney can review the applicable policy language and determine how much insurance coverage is available in your specific situation.

Why you need an Albuquerque car accident attorney

Pursuing punitive damages in car accident cases is difficult, but getting the right attorney on your side can make all the difference. A lawyer who knows New Mexico law can investigate your accident and determine whether the evidence supports a potential punitive damages award. Just as importantly, an attorney who knows the courts and the juries in Bernalillo County will have a better understanding of whether you are likely to prevail in your claim for punitive damages and, if so, how much you will be awarded.

If you were hit by a drunk or reckless driver, you deserve to know all your legal rights and options. You only have a limited amount of time to take legal action, so don’t wait. Talk to an experienced Albuquerque car accident lawyer today.

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Since 1936, Keller & Keller has won more than $1 billion for injury victims. An Albuquerque-based law firm helping families throughout New Mexico with Injury and Wrongful Death ca...