1. Punitive Damages and How they Relate to Drunk Driving Personal Injury Cases:
If you are a victim of a car accident where the at-fault driver was drunk, you may be entitled to punitive damages. Drunk driving personal injury claims are very complex. This is in addition to all your other damages, such as injuries and property damage. Unfortunately, about 30% of us will be involved in an alcohol-related crash at some point in our lives. Last year, over ten thousand people were killed in drunk-driving crashes. This is a quick guide on drunk driving personal injury cases.
Insurance Companies Hide Drunk Driving from Juries in Trial.
Our court systems have consistently held that punitive damages should be given to injured victims or their surviving family members when drinking and driving is a factor. However, insurance companies are very talented at hiding drunk driving from the jury among other things. This is why you should hire an experienced personal injury trial lawyer to protect you and your family’s rights. Read more about what insurance companies hide from juries by clicking here.
2. What are Punitive Damages?
Punitive Damages are allowed in a case when the at-fault person does something intentional or reckless without having any regard for the consequences of their actions. Punitive damages are also a form of punishment for the wrongdoer. Another phrase for punitive damages is “exemplary damages.”
First, Punitive Damages are Designed to Make Society Safer by Punishing Wrongdoers.
This means they are used to make an example out of drunk drivers, or other bad people or corporations, to deter others from copying the bad behavior. Legally, punitive damages were designed to make society safer by punishing wrongdoers.
Second, Punitive Damages Compensate the Drunk Driving Victim’s Losses.
In criminal court, drunk drivers are punished for their crimes, but this does not compensate the victims’ losses. This is why the courts allow punitive damages: to punish the wrongdoers and help victims.
3. How are Punitive Damages Handled? What Happens?
Punitive damages are only allowed in or after a trial. In most cases, it is a jury trial. After the main claim is presented and a verdict is found by the jury, the judge then has a second mini-trial with the same jury. This time they are asked to decide if the defendant should be punished by being ordered to pay punitive damages on top of the compensatory damages they just awarded.
The judge tells the jury that they should award punitive damages if they find by “Clear and Convincing” evidence that the defendant was either guilty of “Intentional misconduct” or “gross negligence,” which was a substantial cause of damages to you.
Clear and Convincing Evidence is Required to Award Punitive Damages.
What is Clear and Convincing evidence? The courts say that it differs from the “greater weight of the evidence” in that it is more compelling and persuasive than just greater weight.
What is Intentional misconduct? The courts tell the jury that this means the defendant had actual knowledge of the wrongfulness of the conduct. Also there was a high probability of injury or damage to the victim. Despite that knowledge, they intentionally pursued that course of conduct.
What is Gross Negligence?
Gross Negligence means that the conduct of the person was so reckless, or wanting in care, that it constituted a conscious disregard or indifference to the life, safety, or rights of others.
4. How Much Punitive Damages are Allowed to be Awarded?
The court will tell the jury to consider an amount that will act as a deterrent to others, and they should consider:
- The nature, extent, and degree of misconduct;
- Whether the wrongful conduct was motivated solely by unreasonable financial gain;
- If the unreasonably dangerous nature of the conduct, together with the high likelihood of injury resulting from the conduct, was actually known by the defendant;
- Whether at the time the defendant had a specific intent to harm;
- And the jury is to consider the financial resources of the defendant, but not award an amount that would financially destroy the defendant.
5. Insurance Companies Hide Drunk Driving from Juries
One important thing we do to help our clients who suffered a loss from a drunk driver is follow the criminal case to see if the bad driver pleads guilty or goes to trial. We encourage our clients to attend the sentencing of the drunk driver. This is to tell the judge about the damages and injuries the drunk driver caused.
Car Insurance Companies are Not Obligated to Pay Punitive Damages, But…
Car insurance companies are not obligated to pay punitive damages. However, insurance companies must do everything possible to protect their insured from paying punitive damages. Insurance companies have a duty to offer victims the policy limits in exchange for a full release of their insured.
If an insurance company decides to gamble and not offer the policy limits, we go all the way to trial. The insurance company will do everything in their power to hide the alcohol and intoxication from the jury. Defense lawyers from the insurance company will ask the judge to hide alcohol from the jury by saying the drunk driver admits fault, therefore the intoxication is irrelevant.
Insurance Defense Lawyers Argue Drunk Driving Facts will Anger the Jury too Much.
The defense will argue the drunk driving facts will anger the jury, causing them to award higher damages to the victims. Judges are inclined to grant motions in limine (an order that something must not be discussed in court) which excludes alcohol if the insurance defense lawyers admit fault.
When the insurance defense lawyers admit fault they tell the judge, “Well, since we admitted fault, the only issues for the jury to determine are causation and damages.” Causation addresses what injuries losses and harms were caused by the bad driver.
Insurance Defense Lawyers Also Argue the Accident Didn’t Cause Your Injuries and Damages.
The defense often times will tell a jury, “Sure, we are at fault, but the negligence did not cause any damages.” They will suggest that no injury occurred. Or if there is an injury, it was caused by something else: not the car crash. They will suggest that the injured person had the problem before the crash, or they got it after the crash. They will say anything but the crash causing any injury.
Then the Insurance Company Defense lawyer will then deny any damages. They may argue that the medical bills are too high, or that the injuries are not there. Insurance companies will rely upon their Compulsory Medical Exam Doctor to say no injury. Drunk driving personal injury cases can be very hard to fight if the lawyer is not experienced in these types of claims.
Insurance Defense Lawyers Tell the Judge Alcohol has No Relationship to Your Injuries.
Insurance defense lawyers will tell the judge that alcohol has no relationship to causation or damages. Therefore the jury should not be told that the defendant was drunk at the time they caused the crash.
6. How can You Make Sure the Jury Knows about Drunk Driving?
Most of my clients who were injured by a drunk driver become more upset about their injuries knowing they were caused by a drunk driver. After accidents involving drunk drivers, my clients often become very sensitive and paranoid about other cars on the road. They start believing any car that swerves or follows behind them too closely is driving drunk.
Mental Anguish Damages are the Key to getting Drunk Driving in Front of a Jury.
My clients tend to re-live the crash in their thoughts for the rest of their lives. Clients have told me when in restaurants and they see others drinking, they worry the drunk person will get behind the wheel and crash into them. Some even say alcohol advertisements remind them of the crash. Drunk driving personal injury damages are very complex and often run deep.
Under Florida Law, Victims are Entitled to Recover Mental Anguish Damages, But here is the Key…
These are just a few of the real-life effects some of my clients experience after being in a wreck with a drunk driver. Each of those examples represent mental anguish damages that victims are legally entitled to recover under the Florida law. But here is the key.
The Judge will likely grant the defense motion to exclude alcohol from the trial unless these mental anguish damages and fears are expressed in some way other than just my client’s words. What I mean by this, is a judge will probably let the drunk driving evidence come before the jury if my client has told their doctors, friends and family about their fears of drunk drivers.
Tell Your Doctors and Friends About Your Mental Anguish and Take Action Against Drunk Driving.
When my client has taken action related to drunk driving like going to a MADD Mothers Against Drunk Driving meeting it goes a long way. Or they tell their doctors about the problems they are feeling, the doctors put this in their medical records. When my client’s before-and-after the crash witnesses give good examples of how their friend reacted to alcohol situations after the crash it helps.
Anything and everything we can show the judge how your mental anguish has been worsened by drunk driving improves the chances that the evidence will be before a jury.
Common Feelings Victims Experience in a Drunk Driving Personal Injury Case:
- Becoming afraid to drive because you worry that other drivers are intoxicated.
- Seeing television commercials about alcohol remind people of the drunk driving crash.
- Every time they go to the doctors they feel worse because a drunk driver has caused injury to them, which could have been avoided if they did not drink and drive.
- The victim feels sad and upset that the drunk driver choose to drive while intoxicated.
- They become paranoid when they see people in public in bars or restaurants who are drinking because it makes them fear the intoxicated person will get behind the wheel of a car and hurt someone.
- The victim worries more than normal about children, friends, and other family members also being hurt or killed by drunk drivers.
- They express that not a day goes by when they don’t think about how upset they are about drunk driving.
What can a Victim do to Help their Mental Anguish? They should consider seeking a psychologist or social worker counsel them. This will help them express and work through the hardships of being a victim of drunk driving.
7. Getting Alcohol into Trials the Best Way for Juries to See
During trial, the defense lawyer will file what is called a Motion In Limine. This which means they want the Judge to limit certain parts of evidence from being shown to the jury.
When they file their motion to exclude alcohol from the trial, I respond. I say, even if the defendant admits liability, alcohol is still relevant evidence for the jury. This is because drunk driving evidence goes toward proving my clients’ damages. Specifically, it goes toward the mental anguish caused by the defendant’s drinking and driving.
Most judges agree with me and tell the insurance company they will not prevent us from telling the jury about the drunk driving. Unfortunately, many lawyers don’t focus on these mental anguish damages enough to make sure they are included in the trial.
8. What can You and Your Lawyer do in Your Drunk Driving Personal Injury Case?
You need to…
- Tell your doctors about how the drunk driver has affected your life.
- Tell your friends and family about how alcohol involvement in the crash has made things harder for you. How it has caused you to have fears about drunk driving you never thought about before this crash.
- Attend the criminal proceedings of the drunk driver.
- Contact Victims Assistance in your county and fill out the Victims Impact Statement. Make sure you give a copy of this to your lawyer.
- Get involved with MADD.
What Lawyers can do to Help Our Clients…
- Get the 911 recording of someone calling the police if this applies.
- Obtain the DUI arrest affidavit from the police;
- Seek to obtain any DUI video tapes of the arrest;
- Obtain the DUI breath or blood alcohol test results;
- Ask you to keep us informed if you are subpoenaed to the criminal case; and
- Obtain a certified copy of the conviction for DUI if they are convicted.
- Make a quick offer to settle your claim for the drunk driver’s policy limits.
- File suit quickly after the insurance company delays or denies paying you the drunk driver’s insurance policy limits.
- After suit is underway, we will file a Motion to seek Punitive Damages against the drunk driver.
- When punitive damages are allowed, do discovery to find what financial resources the drunk driver has to pay them.
More Questions About Drunk Driving Personal Injury Cases?
Unfortunately, there are too many victims of drunk driving. However, the courts allow victims to seek punitive damages against people driving under the influence of alcohol. Without experience in this area of drunk driving negligence law, many lawyers may make simple mistakes. They prevents the jury from knowing all of the facts in the case. Which often results in less than a full measure of damages their clients are otherwise entitled to under Florida law.
If you have more questions, please call me, Matt Powell, at 813-222-2222. I’m a Board Certified Civil Trial Lawyer by the Florida Bar. I have helped many victims and their loved ones with drunk driving personal injury claims.