Getting Punitive Damages in Drunken Driver Injury Cases

October 15, 2015

Drunk driving is a very serious crime that causes horrific car crashes. Often times the drunken driver reaches egregious speeds and does not keep a proper lookout, which causes very heavy-impact collisions. Having represented injury victims in Florida for over a decade, I have represented many people who were injured due to drunk and intoxicated drivers. Oftentimes, victims of drunk drivers and their loved ones feel particularly traumatized knowing that someone acted with such reckless indifference towards their safety – that the accident “did not have to happen”.

Florida law recognizes the extremely reckless nature of crashes caused by drunk drivers and offers punitive damages to their victims. Punitive damages, as prescribed by Fla. Stat. §768.72, are a special kind of damages that are not available in most cases. They are designed to punish those who cause injury as a result of a, “conscious disregard or indifference to the life, safety, or rights of persons exposed to such conduct.” Florida law ensures that drunk drivers are included in
that category.

The Landmark Case on Punitive Damages in Drunk Driving Cases – Ingram v. Pettit

Beginning with the 1976 case of Ingram v. Pettit, the Florida Supreme Court has made it clear that the jury in a car accident case involving negligence caused by an intoxicated driver can consider an award of punitive damages. In that case, the defendant had a blood alcohol content of .26, more than 2 1/2 times the legal limit at that time.

In holding that punitive damages are available to victims in drunk driving car wreck cases, the court noted that “Driving in an intoxicated condition is an intentional act which creates known risks to the public.” The Ingram court went on to reason that punishing drunk drivers with punitive damages can serve as a further deterrent for people who consider getting behind the wheel when they have had too much to drink.

Subsequent Case Law on Florida’s Public Policy Against DUI

In the 2003 case of Matalon v. Lee, Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeals made it clear that even when evidence of drunken driving was purely circumstantial, the issue of punitive damages can be presented to a jury. In Matalon, there was no direct proof of the defendant’s alleged intoxication because he fled the scene, but the court found that there was, “a wealth of circumstantial evidence of intoxication on Matalon’s behalf, including evidence that he had spent 7 – 8 hours in two bars on the night of the accident…” Per the Fourth DCA, this along with other circumstantial factors presented a jury question on punitive damages for driving while intoxicated. As such, the trial court’s denial of the Defendant’s Motion for Directed Verdict on the issue of punitive damages was upheld.

Because of these and other DUI-related car crash cases, Florida juries have considerable latitude in awarding punitive or exemplary damages to a person or family who has been hurt in a car accident in which alcohol was a factor. Unfortunately, not all punitive damages awards are covered by a defendant’s liability insurance, but a successful plaintiff may still be able to pursue the judgment from the defendant’s personal assets. The possibility of a punitive damages award can also be a substantial factor in driving up the value of a case as the insurer is required under Florida law to consider its insured’s exposure and the jury’s negative feelings towards drunken drivers.

To Get Legal Assistance with Your Florida Car Accident Case

If you or a family member has been involved in a car accident involving a drunk driver, you need an aggressive attorney who is experienced in dealing with the complexities that can arise in these tragic cases. To schedule an appointment with the Florida drunk driving accident attorneys at The Grife Law Firm, call us toll-free at 855-998-0770 to schedule a free case review. We proudly serve clients throughout the State of Florida and the Boca Raton area, including Boynton Beach, Delray Beach, and Deerfield Beach.

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