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When can a victim's family get punitive damages?

It is always sad when a Virginia family loses a loved one unexpectedly. In addition to the emotional fallout, there are usually financial repercussions due to unpaid medical bills, funeral expenses and most importantly, lost income. Moreover, the emotional loss has some financial value of its own.

Because of the huge loss, it can be particularly hard for a family to understand when someone could have prevented the death, but through negligence, did not do so. In many cases, the person at fault will wind up paying compensation only for the damages he or she caused. In other though, a family may also be able to get punitive damages.

Punitive damages are relatively rare because civil wrongful death lawsuits compensate families, not punish the person who caused the accident through a fine or penalty. But, punitive damages are warranted in extreme cases, such as when a person acts "oppressively" or with "criminal indifference to civil obligations."

Although those are legal terms, what they mean in practice is a person has to be beyond just careless in causing an accident. He or she has to act in such way that it indicates a certain callousness to toward human life or the rights of others, as if it did not really matter if their actions hurt someone else.

For example, someone who just did not see a red light is probably not going pay punitive damages, even if he or she causes a fatal accident. On the other hand, someone who was street racing, drinking or doing drugs before a fatal accident may pay punitive damages. Nevertheless, these issues are complicated, and legal representation may help uncomplicated one's situation.

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