LAVELLE LAW GROUP, APC

Can I Recover Punitive Damages From a Drunk Driver?

In California insured drunk drivers that cause automobile accidents may think that the only financial losses they may suffer are their attorney's fees to defend them in a drunk driving prosecution and the court imposed fine if they are convicted of driving under the influence of an intoxicating beverage. These drunk drivers may be in for a big surprise that can very expensive. Sure their insurance premiums will increase dramatically and they will have their driver's license suspended for many months depending on prior convictions for the same offense. They may face jail time and a mandatory rehab program which is can be expensive.

How about the innocent person they injured????  In certain cases depending on the facts of the case, these drunk drivers who pled guilty or who were convicted of driving under the influence while causing an accident and personal injuries can be sued for Punitive Damages. Punitive damages are also sometimes called punishment damages. They can be substantial and in theory are supposed to reduce drunk driving by allowing additional damages against the offending drunk driver and hopefully deter this type of conduct in the future. Punitive damages are meant to embarrass the drunk driver and keep others from driving while intoxicated.

Unfortunately drunk drivers in the California continue to be responsible for many serious injury accidents and wrongful deaths of innocent drivers. California Civil Code in Section 3294 states in part, "in an action for the breach of an obligation not arising from contract, where it is proved from clear and convincing evidence that the defendant has been guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice, the plaintiff, in addition to the actual damages, may recover damages for the sake of example and by way of punishing the defendant". Causing an accident while intoxicated can qualify for an award of Punitive damages against the defendant. In 1979 the California Supreme Court said that Punitive damages can be awarded against drunk drivers under certain circumstances. Taylor v. Superior Court (1979) 24 Cal. 3rd 890. What is the consequence to the convicted drunk driver? It means that they will have to pay the Punitive damages part of the jury verdict out of their own pocket. In the case of Peterson v Superior Court (1982) 31 Cal. 3rd 147, the California Supreme Court discussed how the drunk driver's liability insurance coverage affects the injuries caused by the drunk driver. That Court ruled that an award of Punitive damages in such cases was uninsurable, which meant that the drunk driver who caused the injuries must pay the Punitive damage part of the verdict from his or her own pocket. The insurance company of the drunk driver will still have to pay the compensatory damage part of the verdict. When the jury is allowed to render a punitive damage award against a drunk driver they are allowed to consider the financial status of the defendant in reaching their verdict. Depending on the facts of any specific case, it may not be possible or practical to obtain punitive damages in a drunk driving accident; but make sure you have someone fighting for you who will properly evaluate the issue.    
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