From the Litigation Practice.

Are Punitive Damages Available to Plaintiffs Involved in Motor Vehicle Accidents in Maryland?

January, 2024  | By Trevor F. Gee

Trevor GeeThe award of punitive damages in Maryland is exceptionally rare. In Maryland, the “purpose of punitive damages is…to punish the defendant for egregiously bad conduct toward the plaintiff, [and] also to deter the defendant and others contemplating similar behavior.” Owens–Corning v. Garrett, 343 Md. 500, 537–538, 682 A.2d 1143, 1161 (1996). Notably, “[a]warding punitive damages based upon the heinous nature of the defendant’s tortious conduct furthers the historical purposes of punitive damages—punishment and deterrence.” Owens–Illinois v. Zenobia, 325 Md. 420, 454 (1992).

In Owens–Illinois, the Supreme Court of Maryland adopted a clear and convincing evidence standard for the award of punitive damages. The court reasoned that the “[u]se of a clear and convincing standard of proof will help to ensure that punitive damages are properly awarded.” Id. at 469. Consequently, “with respect to both intentional and non-intentional torts, …an award of punitive damages must be based upon actual malice, in the sense of conscious and deliberate wrongdoing, evil or wrongful motive, intent to injure, ill will, or fraud.” Bowden v. Caldor, Inc., 350 Md. 4, 23, 710 A.2d 267, 276 (1998).

Not all forms of “actual malice” are pertinent to every type of tort action. For example, in a defamation action, punitive damages are not recoverable based upon ill will, spite, or an intent to injure; instead, to recover punitive damages, the plaintiff must establish that the defamatory falsehood was made with actual knowledge that it was false. See LeMarc’s Management Corp. v. Valentin, 349 Md. 645, 709 A.2d 1222 (1998). This high burden—requiring both clear and convincing evidence and evidence of particularly egregious conduct—renders punitive damages a rare event in most standard, negligence-based motor vehicle accident lawsuits. Indeed, unlike many other states, Maryland does not permit recovery of punitive damages against tortfeasors who consume excessive quantities of alcohol or mind-altering drugs. Komornik v. Sparks, 331 Md. 720 (1993).

In line with many other states, a plaintiff has no right or entitlement to punitive damages under Maryland law. Indeed, “[t]he trier of fact has discretion to deny punitive damages even where the record otherwise would support their award.” Adams v. Coates, supra, 331 Md. 1, 15 (1993). There is no cap on punitive damages in Maryland, but there is a requirement that they be proportionate to the amount of compensatory damages awarded, and a “party cannot recover punitive damages absent an award of compensatory damages.” Fisher v. McCrary Crescent City, LLC., 186 Md. App. 86, 972 A.2d 954 (2009). Additionally, the amount of punitive damages “must not be disproportionate to the gravity of the defendant’s wrong.” Ellerin v. Fairfax Savings, supra, 337 Md. 216, 242 (1995). Likewise, it has been “long recognized under Maryland law…that the amount of punitive damages should not be disproportionate to…the defendant’s ability to pay.” Bowden v. Caldor, Inc.supra, 350 Md. At 28. The court’s ruling in Bowden underscores the difficulty of obtaining punitive damages against individuals in Maryland who are often of limited means (compared to corporations and other entities), even if punitive damages would otherwise be warranted.

Although there has been a significant amount of lobbying done in Annapolis to change the current law, no change in the law has come to fruition. As a result, to date, no motor vehicle accident case in Maryland has ever resulted in an award of punitive damages against a tortfeasor-driver. However, current Maryland jurisprudence does contemplate the availability of punitive damages in a motor tort action that, if the tortfeasor-driver’s actions be the result of actual malice, deliberate wrongdoing, evil or wrongful motive, and intent to injure—established under a clear and convincing standard of proof.

If you have any questions or would like more information regarding the above, Trevor Gee can be contacted at (410) 576-4889 and tgee@semmes.com.