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Essential Information About Punitive Damages and Other Forms of Compensation You Can Recover From a Drunk Driver in Virginia

“Every day,” the CDC writes at the top of one of its Get the Facts web pages, “29 people in the United States die in motor vehicle crashes that involve an alcohol-impaired driver.” That works out one person being killed in a drunk driving crash every 51 minutes. Sadly, Virginia contributes its share to this terrible toll.

According to the Department of Motor Vehicles, drunk drivers took 264 lives in the state during 2019. That same year, some 4,400 people suffered injuries in crashes on Virginia roads and highways when one or more of the drivers was operating under the influence of alcohol.Creative Commons (CC-0) via pixabay / succo -- https://pixabay.com/photos/hammer-horizontal-court-justice-802298/

Injured victims of drivers who make the dangerous decision to get behind the wheel after becoming intoxicated have the undeniable right to file insurance claims and civil lawsuits. In the same way, family members of individuals who are killed by drunk drivers can demand compensation for wrongful deaths. All such claims must be made in a timely manner, with Virginia setting a two-year statute of limitations for nearly all legal actions against at-fault driver.

Consulting with an experienced and caring Virginia personal injury lawyer and wrongful death attorney will clarify what types of monetary damages are available. Enlisting the advice and representation of a dedicated plaintiff’s attorney will also make it easier to heal physically and emotionally while someone else deals directly with insurance claims adjusters.

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How much monetary compensation can be claimed will vary for each case. Factors that determine a fair settlement or just jury award include the severity of the injuries, how intoxicated the at-fault driver was, the total calculated and estimated financial losses incurred by the victim, the level of emotional trauma and mental distress suffered, the amount of insurance coverage available, and the willingness of the plaintiff to take their case to trial rather than settle. In general, however, individuals who are injured or killed by drunk drivers are entitled to seek the payment for economic, noneconomic and punitive damages.

Economic Damages

In personal injury cases, economic damages include

  • Total medical bills to date, including costs for prescription medications and therapy;
  • Estimated costs for the ongoing treatment of injuries suffered in the accident;
  • Wages lost while recovering from crash-related injuries; and
  • Loss of future earnings due to a permanent disability.

Recoverable economic damages in wrongful death cases include all of the listed items, as well as reasonable funeral costs.

Noneconomic Damages

Physical pain, emotional trauma and mental anguish following an injury or death are quite real. They can also be debilitating and long-lasting, and they deserve compensation.

Often simply called awards for pain and suffering, noneconomic damages are calculated as a percentage or multiple of economic damages. Especially in wrongful death cases, noneconomic damages can be claimed for losses related to the role the deceased victim can no longer play in the family. Such as losses go by legal names like loss of companionship and loss of counsel.

Punitive Damages

Section 8.01-44.5 of the Virginia Code spells out the process for claiming punitive damages against a drunk driver. The statute gives civil trial juries discretion to order the payment of compensation over and above awards for economic and noneconomic damages when evidence proves that the defendant acted with malice or the defendant’s conduct was so willful or wanton as to show a conscious disregard for the rights of others. It can help to think of punitive damages as noncriminal fines assessed to punish reckless behavior.

The statute also states that it will be presumed that an at-fault drunk driver’s conduct was sufficiently willful or wanton when there is evidence that the driver had a blood alcohol concentration at or above 0.15 at the time of the accident or when the driver refused to submit breath, blood and urine samples for laboratory tests. In nearly all instances, punitive damage awards in Virginia are capped at $350,000.

Notably, the average BAC for Virginia drivers who were convicted of driving while intoxicated during 2019 was 0.149.

Receiving punitive damages requires going through a separate, short hearing following the conclusion of the jury trial to determine economic and noneconomic damages. Some plaintiffs elect to skip this extra step.

EJL

Richard N. Shapiro
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Personal Injury & Wrongful Death Lawyer Serving Va Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake & all of Virginia