Our law firm only represents victims injured by drunk driving. This article explores personal injuries and wrongful deaths caused by impaired or drunk drivers. Whenever clients hire us to represent them or their loved ones in a case involving an at-fault drunk driver, we examine numerous special circumstances related to the accident. For example, we try to determine whether the drunk or drugged driver is a wild, out-of-control teenager, a sailor or soldier on leave and on a drinking binge, or an otherwise responsible, middle-aged adult who had one too many before getting behind the wheel.
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Our goal in every DUI and DWI injury or wrongful death caseis to identify all sources of insurance recovery and to help our client receive compensation for all types of accident-related expenses and losses, including medical bills, lost wages, permanent injuries, pain, suffering and scars. We can also try to bring a claim for punitive damages. This is a form of punishment compensation that can be assessed if the drunk driver can be shown to have been grossly negligent or to have committed egregiously bad acts.
What Constitutes a DUI/DWI Violation by a Driver?
Drunk driving refers to driving a motor vehicle, boat or personal watercraft with enough alcohol or drugs in the bloodstream to impair one's ability to operate the vehicle safely. Impaired driving means that your judgment, coordination, response time and other physical and mental functions are lower than normal.
In Virginia and every neighboring state, the legal limit for DUI/DWI is a BAC of 0.08. One can still be convicted of DUI with a BAC of less than 0.08 in most states. For example, if there is proof that the driver is under the influence of drugs -- even legal prescription or over-the-counter drugs -- that impair his or her driving, the person can be arrested for DUI despite having a BAC of 0.0. Virginia has a zero tolerance law for drivers under 21 years old. Anyone younger than the legal drinking age who gets caught driving while having a BAC as low as 0.02 BAC can face a $500 fine, a six-month license suspension and jail time. Those under 21 who drive under the influence of drugs or with a BAC of 0.08 or greater are subject to the same penalties as those over 21.
Which Virginia Law Allows Punitive Damages Against Drunk Drivers?
Virginia Code § 8.01-44.5, "Exemplary Damages for Persons Injured by Intoxicated Drivers," states, in pertinent part and with emphasis added,
In any action for personal injury or death arising from the operation of a motor vehicle, engine or train, the finder of fact may, in its discretion, award exemplary [i.e., 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.
A defendant's conduct shall be deemed sufficiently willful or wanton as to show a conscious disregard for the rights of others when the evidence proves that (i) when the incident causing the injury or death occurred, the defendant had a blood alcohol concentration of 0.15 or more by weight by volume or 0.15 grams or more per 210 liters of breath; (ii) at the time the defendant began drinking alcohol, or during the time he was drinking alcohol, he knew or should have known that his ability to operate a motor vehicle, engine or train would be impaired, or when he was operating a motor vehicle he knew or should have known that his ability to operate a motor vehicle was impaired; and (iii) the defendant's intoxication was a proximate cause of the injury to or death of the plaintiff.
Importantly, persons who are convicted of drunk driving offenses are not permitted to get a bankruptcy discharge of any personal injury claims or judgments arising from their acts.
Examples of Virginia Cases in Which Drunk Drivers Were Ordered to Pay Punitive Damages
Here are summaries of several cases where the Virginia courts stated punitive (punishment) damages could be awarded in addition to injury/compensatory damages:
Muri v. Killeen VLW 004-3-1330 (USDC-WD 2004)
The defendant, after consuming alcohol at a company-sponsored dinner, turned the wrong way onto a divided highway and continued to drive on the wrong side of the road at 40-50 mph despite being passed by several vehicles before hitting and injuring the plaintiff. The at-fault failed five field sobriety tests and had a 0.075 BAC two hours after a traffic accident.The driver injured is entitled to sue the defendant for punitive damages.
Allstate Ins. Co. v. Wade, 265 Va. 383 (2003)
A Virginia appeals court judge wrote in her opinion in favor of the plaintiff that a "jury could properly conclude that DeGarmo's [a defendant insured by Allstate] conduct amounted to more than simple negligence and reflected a conscious disregard for the safety of others," because DeGarmo was intoxicated, knew that Sowers was intoxicated, and encouraged Sowers to drive faster on roads he knew were difficult to navigate at night.The two men had together consumed more than two fifths of whiskey in less than six hours before becoming involved in a vehicle accident in which Sowers crossed into the oncoming lane of traffic and collided head on with another vehicle. DeGarmo and Sowers then jumped into the back seat of the vehicle and told the police that the driver had exited the vehicle and fled. DeGarmo had a BAC of 0.179; Sowers had a BAC of 0.264.
Woods v. Mendez, 265 Va. 68 (2003)
This case established that punitive damages should be allowed where the defendant operated a motor vehicle after consuming at least 10 beers, continued to drink, knew he was in danger of falling asleep and, did in fact, fall asleep at the wheel before crashing into another vehicle. The evidence showed the at-fault driver's actions were willfully and wantonly negligent.
In drunk driving cases, we carefully study not only all the evidence of drunk driving. We also analyze all insurance sources, and whether a punitive damages claim is viable.