The property damage is significant; your car is likely totaled. Furthermore, you suffer serious physical injuries including a head wound, torn muscles, neck trauma, and a spinal cord injury. In this scenario, you may be able to pursue “punitive” damages against the intoxicated, distracted at-fault driver who caused the wreck.
Plaintiffs (i.e. injured parties) in civil lawsuits can generally seek two types of monetary damages:
- Compensatory, which represent reimbursement for expenses incurred as a result of another person or organization’s negligence or recklessness. Examples of damages from a personal injury that merit compensation include hospital bills, therapy and rehabilitation expenses, lost wages, as well as past and future physical pain, past and future inconvenience, and disfigurement and deformity.
- Punitive, which, as the name indicates, represents a noncriminal financial punishment for harming a person. Personal injuries caused by drunk drivers are among the most common cases that give rise to punitive damages.
Many states, including Virginia, allow plaintiff’s to pursue punitive damages but impose statutory caps on those damages. For instance, § 8.01-38.1 of the Virginia Code restricts punitive damage awards to $350,000. Federal laws may also result in a cap on noneconomic and punitive damages in different ways. Plaintiffs in federal lawsuits should consult with their lawyers on the possibility of securing punitive damages, as well as what amount is possible.
Defining Punitive Damages More Precisely
The Shriver Center offers this explanation of punitive damages: “The purpose … is deterrence and retribution; they punish a defendant’s unlawful conduct and deter its repetition.” The center further explains that a person or organization becomes liable for paying punitive damages when their behavior is found to be “malicious, intentional, or recklessly or callously indifferent.”
Virginia courts use similar standards with slightly different language. For instance, the Virginia Code specifies that a judge or jury hearing a personal injury case involving a defendant who had been driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs “may, in its discretion, award punitive damages to the plaintiff if the evidence proves that the defendant acted with malice toward the plaintiff or the defendant’s conduct was so willful or wanton as to show a conscious disregard for the rights of others.” The judge or jury can also award punitive damages in a drunk driving case if the evidence proves the defendant’s blood alcohol concentration at the time of the collision was greater than .15 by weight by volume. See Virginia Code section 8.01-44.5.
Punitive damages are not solely available to victims of drunk drivers. With the key being showing that the defendant acted “willfully and wantonly,” victims of medical malpractice, nursing home neglect, employment discrimination, whistleblower retaliation, defective products and financial fraud can also seek punitive damages from the individuals or organizations that harmed them.
Prime Example of Punitive Damages Case
One of Shapiro, Appleton & Duffan’s attorneys recently succeeded in securing a punitive damages award of $1 million from a Newport News, Virginia jury. The firm’s client – a middle school teacher with a young son – suffered life-altering injuries after being hit head-on by a 17-year-old drunk driver. The teacher’s son also sustained serious injuries in the crash, which caused the boy to be ejected from his mother’s car.
The teacher experienced a broken arm, internal injuries and multiple compound fractures to both her legs, which left her unable to walk for three months and required more than a dozen surgeries. She was unable to work and she is likely to endure significant pain for the rest of her life.
Evidence collected prior to trial showed that that the at-fault driver consumed vodka prior to, or while driving around in an angry and distracted state. He admitted to knowing that the alcohol would impair his performance behind the wheel and also that he glanced over at his cell phone just before crossing the center line and colliding with the victim’s car.
That testimony, as well as facts stated by a toxicologist who determined that the teen had a blood alcohol content well above the .08 legal limit at the time of the accident, proved essential to our attorney’s strategy to ask for common law punitive damages.
Because the defendant knew he posed a danger to others, and because he ignored that risk, the jury determined he was liable for punitive damages. The victim also was awarded $2.5 million in compensatory damages.
Following the jury’s decision, and illuminating the importance of punitive damages as an instrument of justice, the plaintiff said, “I do feel, in a sense, that there was justice and he was held accountable. The whole goal was that accountability would follow him in a similar fashion as the lifelong negative impact is going to follow me.”
Edwin S. Booth is an associate at Shapiro, Appleton & Duffan in Virginia Beach, Va. His firm has litigated wrongful death, trucking, faulty products, railroad and medical negligence claims throughout the Eastern United States.
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