Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Am I Entitled To Punitive Damages As The Result of Being The Victim of Drunk Driving?

Florida lawyer explains punitive damages for drunk driving victims
Suffering injury as the result of someone else’s negligence is always difficult to process. The fact that a tortfeasor’s carelessness can have such devastating impact on an injury victim often times creates feelings of helplessness, loss and resentment towards the wrongdoer. These feelings are generally compounded when the cause of your injury is not based solely on another driver’s inattentiveness, but also by his/her decision to consume alcohol or other mind altering substances prior to operating a motor vehicle. Victims of drunk driving can understandably harbor more feelings of anger towards the driver than those in a typical automobile collision case. Not only are a victim’s elevated feelings understandable from a human perspective, but treating drivers who cause collisions based on their intoxication differently is recognized from a legal standpoint as well.

Damages for Personal Injuries Suffered in Car Crash Cases

In the past, I’ve posted articles regarding the types of damages an injury victim may be compensated for after being involved in a car crash or similar incident. These damages are typically divided into two categories: economic and noneconomic damages. Economic damages are easily identifiable and may be calculated by utilizing hard and fast numbers and formulas. Economic damages include past and future medical expenses, past and future lost wages and other types of tangible losses. Noneconomic or “pain and suffering” damages are those intangible losses such as the loss for the capacity for the enjoyment of life, mental anguish, inconvenience and others.

Punitive Damages

A more rare form of damages are referred to as “punitive damages.” These damages, as the name implies, are meant to punish the Defendant for his/her conduct as well as deter others and society as a whole from engaging in similar conduct. In the context of automobile collision cases, punitive damages are frequently sought in instances where the defendant driver was under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol at the time of the collision. The Florida Legislature has allowed plaintiffs to assert claims for punitive damages under the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure and § 768.72, Florida Statutes. Florida law recognizes that punitive damages may be warranted when a defendant driver demonstrates reckless disregard for human life and the safety of others. This is distinguishable from simple negligence, where a defendant’s conduct is said to fall below the standard of care that a reasonably prudent person would utilize in like circumstances.

It is well settled in Florida that punitive damages are appropriate in cases where negligence is coupled with intoxication. 

Ingram v. Petitt, 340 So. 2d 922 (Fla. 1976) "[W]e affirmatively hold that the voluntary act of driving ''while intoxicated'' evinces, without more, a sufficiently reckless attitude for a jury to be asked to provide an award of punitive damages if it determines liability exists for compensatory damages."); See also, Zuckerman v. Robinson, 846 So. 2d 1257 (Fla. 4th DCA 2003) (Legislature has singled out DUI cases as uniquely qualified for punitive damages); Matalon v. Lee, 847 So. 2d 1077 (Fla. 4th DCA 2003); D'Amario v. Ford Motor Co., 806 So. 2d 424 (Fla. 2001).

Significantly, it was the Florida Legislature’s intent by enacting § 768.736, Florida Statutes, to not only lessen the Plaintiff’s burden of proof when asserting a claim for punitive damages in cases wherein there is an intoxicated Defendant, but to also remove the standard cap on punitive damages as is generally applied under § 768.73, Florida Statutes.

While in general, automobile insurance policies may not insure the tortfeasor driver for punitive damages, the insurer nevertheless has a duty to act in the best interest of their insured. Indeed, the insurer must exercise control over the claim process in good faith and with due regard for its policyholder by placing the policyholder’s interest firstWhen the insurer fails to satisfy its fiduciary duties to its policyholder, the insurer shall be held liable for any resulting damages including the resulting judgment against the policyholder in excess of the policyholder’s underlying limits Campbell vs. GEICO, 306 So.2d 525, 530 (Fla. 1975). Accordingly, insurance companies must be wary when handling a claim wherein the insured driver was intoxicated at the time of the crash and must mitigate the loss accordingly.

Contact Dolman Law Group

If you have been injured as the result of an intoxicated driver, contact the attorneys at Dolman Law Group to ensure your rights are being protected. As explained in this article, cases involving intoxication are inherently different from a typical motor vehicle collision case, as punitive damages—damages meant to punish the tortfeasor and which are above and beyond typical damages—may be warranted. For more information call 727-451-6900

Dolman Law Group
800 North Belcher Road
Clearwater, FL 33765