Christmas came early for Mark Joye. On Dec. 2, a federal judge upheld a $250 million punitive damages award that Joye had won in a car-crash case tried in Charleston, S.C.

It was a heady day for the 36-year-old lawyer, who practices with his dad at a firm devoted to far more mundane matters, such as driving-while-intoxicated cases. It was also cause for reflection on what helped him win a record award against the auto industry.