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Injured by a Drunk Driver?  You May Get Punitive Damages

If you're a victim of a Virginia car accident caused by a drunk driver, you are entitled to compensation for your injuries. Under a state law, you also may be awarded punitive damages in a drunk driving case if the circumstances of your accident meet specific criteria.

Damages in Virginia Car Accidents

Drunk Driving Car AccidentWhen a negligent drunk driver causes an accident in Virginia, injured victims are entitled to compensatory damages that cover:

  • Medical and hospital expenses
  • Future medical costs
  • Pain and suffering
  • Lost work
  • Lost earning capacity
  • Permanent disability, disfigurement, and injury

In rare cases, a victim may also be able to recover punitive damages, which are also sometimes referred to as exemplary damages. Punitive damages do not compensate the victim. These unique damages punish the wrongdoer for egregious conduct and set an example to deter others from similar conduct.

Punitive Damages in Drunk Driving Cases

Virginia has a specific law that allows a court or jury to award punitive damages in a drunk driving case. The law provides that punitive damages may be awarded 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 statute lays out specific requirements for meeting this criteria:

  1. The defendant's blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was more than 0.15 percent;
  2. The defendant knew or should have known that his ability to operate a vehicle would be or was impaired; and
  3. The defendant's intoxication was a proximate cause of the injury or death.

Under the law, if the defendant refused to take a blood alcohol test as required by state law, evidence of the defendant's conduct or condition can be used to establish the defendant's intoxication in place of the first requirement above for BAC level.

A plaintiff in a drunk driving case is not automatically entitled to punitive damages. It actually is difficult to convince a judge or jury to award punitive damages.

The plaintiff's attorney must establish entitlement under the provisions of the law. The most important requirement in establishing entitlement to punitive damages is demonstrating "malice toward the plaintiff" or "willful or wanton" conduct that shows a "conscious disregard for the rights of others."

Whether the legal standard is met will depend entirely on the facts of the case. Evidence about the conduct of the defendant leading up to the accident will be extremely important, as will evidence about the circumstances of the accident itself. Factors that will be taken into account include the amount of damage caused, how blatant and egregious the defendant's conduct was, and the extent to which the conduct might have been prevented. Every case is unique.

If you've been injured by a drunk driver, your attorney will discuss the possibility of punitive damages with you. In some cases, there will be enough evidence to claim punitive damages. In other cases, there may not be sufficient evidence to meet the requirements of the law.

Punitive Damages in Other Cases

Most cases involving an award of punitive damages are drunk driving cases that meet the statutory requirements. However, Virginia also has a common-law right to punitive damages established through court decisions. Under that precedent, punitive damages can be awarded in cases that do not involve drunk driving.

Getting a judge or jury to award punitive damages in any case is difficult. Just as in drunk driving cases, proof that the defendant's conduct was malicious, willful, or wanton is required.

Limit on Punitive Damage Awards

Virginia has a statutory limit on the amount of punitive damages that can be awarded by a judge or jury. The cap is $350,000. The law has an interesting aspect. It specifically provides that a jury cannot be advised of the maximum amount before determining damages. If a jury awards punitive damages higher than $350,000, the judge is required to reduce the verdict to the maximum amount allowed under statute.

In the 2018 legislative session, the Virginia House and Senate considered bills that would increase the cap to $500,000, but the higher limit was not adopted. It remains to be seen whether the effort to increase the limit will be renewed in future legislative sessions.

Amount of Punitive Damages

The appropriate amount of punitive damages is determined solely on the basis of the facts of a case. There are no rules or guidelines that can be applied to estimate the amount of punitive damages a plaintiff should be awarded. The judge or jury makes that decision based on the evidence presented in court.

A few years ago, the Virginia Supreme Court reviewed a case in which a jury awarded $100,000 punitive damages to each of two plaintiffs in a drunk driving case. One plaintiff received $5,600 in compensatory damages. The other plaintiff received $10,000 in compensatory damages.

On defendant's motion, the trial court reduced the amount of punitive damages to $50,000 for the plaintiff with the $5,600 compensatory damages award. The court stated that the punitive damages were too high and should be less than 10 times the amount of compensatory damages awarded to that plaintiff.

The plaintiff appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court, which found that the trial court's reduction of punitive damages was in error. After reviewing the circumstances of the accident, the Supreme Court stated that the original amount of $100,000 was high but not unreasonable or excessive in light of the defendant's conduct (which included previous DUI charges on multiple occasions) and the plaintiff's potential loss. The Court reinstated the $100,000 award.

While this case does not establish a rule for calculating punitive damages, it does demonstrate the approach of Virginia courts in reviewing punitive damage awards.

Talk with an Experienced Virginia Beach Personal Injury Lawyer

If you’ve been seriously injured in any kind of accident that was another person’s fault, Virginia Beach personal injury attorney Jeffrey Brooke is here to help. At The Jeff Brooke Team, we always have your and your family’s best interests at heart and aggressively pursue your case to get the full compensation you deserve. Contact us by phone at (757) 347-8524 or by using our online contact form.

Jeff Brooke is a personal injury attorney devoted to helping individuals who have suffered serious and catastrophic injuries or lost a loved one as a result of someone else’s negligent and careless actions. The Jeff Brooke Team serves all of southeastern Virginia. The firm helps clients in the Greater Tidewater and Greater Hampton Roads areas, including in Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, and Chesterfield. The Jeff Brooke Team also handles cases in northeastern North Carolina, including the Outer Banks.

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