Compensatory and Punitive Damages for Wrongful Death in North Carolina

open roadIn a recent North Carolina wrongful death case, the defendant appealed after a jury awarded the plaintiff compensatory and punitive damages for his wife’s wrongful death. The defendant was driving on a two-lane road early one morning when she lost control of the car, crossed over into an oncoming lane of traffic, and hit the plaintiff’s wife, who was a pedestrian on the other shoulder of the road. The wife was seriously injured, and a few days later, she died.

During the first half of the trial, the jury considered compensatory damages, and in the second half of trial, the jury addressed punitive damages. The husband put on evidence about his actual damages, including the proof he’d suffered harm before her death. The jury awarded the husband $4.25 million in compensatory damages. In the punitive damages phase, the jury listened to evidence that the defendant was a student who worked part-time, that she drank alcohol early that morning, and that she had a BAC above the legal limit two hours after the accident happened. $45,000 in punitive damages was awarded.

The defendant moved for a new trial, but the lower court denied the motion. She argued that the plaintiff’s questioning of the jury had violated her due process right to a bifurcated trial because the questions involved issues relevant only to the punitive damages claim. The appellate court explained punitive damages can’t be recovered when a defendant isn’t found liable for compensatory damages under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1D-15. To make sure the jury doesn’t award compensatory damages based on issues relevant only to punitive damages, the North Carolina legislature has granted defendants the right to bifurcated trials that will allow liability issues to be tried separately from the amount of punitive damages. During the trial, the plaintiff isn’t permitted to introduce evidence about punitive damages during the phase of compensatory damages.

The defendant didn’t argue that the plaintiff put forward improper evidence about the defendant’s drunkenness during the compensatory damages phase of the trial. She argued that the plaintiff asking questions of jurors during voir dire about their alcohol and drunk driving attitudes was not proper. The appellate court explained that N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1D-30 allows the defendant a bifurcated trial to make sure the jury isn’t improperly influenced by proof related to punitive damages. However, it explained the defendant’s right to bifurcation has to be balanced against the plaintiff’s right to an unbiased jury. This included the plaintiff’s right to ask jurors about issues they might be asked to consider.

Under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1D-30, the same jury must try both the compensatory damages issues and the punitive damages issues. Therefore, the plaintiff could ask jurors about what they felt about alcohol and drunk driving. The appellate court determined that the plaintiff’s general questioning hadn’t expressly stated the defendant was drunk, so it was appropriate.

The defendant also argued the plaintiff shouldn’t have been able to ask “stake-out” questions. She also argued that all of the questions biased the jury, and the result was an unfair trial. In a stake-out question, a juror is asked to pledge herself to a future course of action if there is a certain set of facts. The appellate court disagreed as to the defendant’s characterization of stake-out questions.

If you have lost a loved one due to the wrongful conduct or negligence of another party, the experienced Charlotte car accident attorneys at Maurer Law may be able to help you recover compensation. We represent clients in the Charlotte, NC metro area and also Greensboro, NC and Winston-Salem, NC. Contact us at 919-229-8359 or via our online form.

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Wrongful Death and Contributory Negligence in North Carolina