North Carolina Punitive Damages Law

You might be familiar with the phrase “punitive damages,” but you may not quite understand what it means and the types of cases where such damages are available. In North Carolina, the majority of controlling law is found in Chapter 1D of our General Statutes. 

Punitive damages may be awarded only if you first prove that you are entitled to compensatory damages and then prove that one or more of the following factors are present: (1) fraud, (2) malice, or (3) willful or wanton conduct. These are high standards to meet. Fraud requires intent to deceive, while malice implies a “sense of personal ill will” that causes the defendant to perform an unlawful act.

Willful or wanton conduct means “the conscious and intentional disregard of and indifference to the rights and safety of others, which the defendant knows or should know is reasonably likely to result in injury, damages, or other harm.” The most common example of willful or wanton conduct is operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol. We have settled multiple punitive damages cases recently in which the driver was under the influence of alcohol, including cases in which the medical bills for the driver were relatively small.

You should be aware that there is a cap on punitive damage recoveries. N.C.G.S. § 1D-25(b) provides that punitive damages “shall not exceed three times the amount of compensatory damages or two hundred fifty thousand dollars ($250,000.00), whichever is greater.” However, the only situation where this cap does not apply is in situations where the defendant caused an automobile accident because he was driving while impaired.

In many business disputes, the plaintiff will sue for fraud and Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices. In that situation, if you successfully prove each claim, he or she will have to choose from recovering punitive damages for the fraud claim or treble damages for the Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices claim. You are not entitled to recover for both.

Representation for Punitive Damages

Maginnis Law regularly represents individuals and businesses in disputes involving punitive damages. Sample cases involve drunk driving automobile accidents and contract disputes involving intentional misrepresentation (i.e. fraud). We offer free consultations to all prospective clients from our Raleigh office, and accept many cases, including personal injury matters, on a contingency basis.

To speak with an experienced civil litigation attorney, contact Maginnis Law at 919.526.0450, email us at or visit our contact page to submit details regarding your case. Our firm regularly represents clients from in and around the Triangle Area, including: Raleigh, Durham, Cary, Morrisville, Garner, Chapel Hill, Wake Forest, Pittsboro, and Clayton. You can also subscribe to our mailing list to learn about the rights you have under consumer protection law against large corporations.