Results tagged “drunk driving” from Maryland Car Accident Lawyer Blog

Maryland Punitive Damages: Not For Auto Accidents, And Not For Drunk Driving Lawsuits

April 5, 2012

Beer.jpgMany clients come to us expecting that they will be entitled to punitive damages in their Maryland auto accident. This is especially true in cases where the negligent driver was drunk, or tried to flee the scene of the auto accident, or was driving while texting. Sadly, punitive damages are rarely available, even in these extreme examples.

Punitive damages are "damages on an increased scale, awarded to the plaintiff over and above what will barely compensate him for his property loss, where the wrong done to him was aggravated by circumstances of violence, oppression, malice, fraud, or wanton and wicked conduct on the part of the defendant." (Black's Law Dict., 1991 ed., pg. 390). These damages are intended to punish the defendant, to make an example of him.

Every state has its own law on punitive damages. In Maryland, the purpose of punitive damages is to punish the defendant for egregiously bad conduct toward the plaintiff, and also to deter the defendants and others contemplating similar behavior. The standard in Maryland is gross negligence or actual malice.

This is extremely difficult to prove in almost any type of auto accident case. The plaintiff must show that the defendant's actions were characterized by an evil motive, intent to injure, or ill-will. Basically, the "negligent" driver would have had to deliberately hit the victim. Of course, intentional acts like that usually void insurance policies.

But what about drunk drivers? What about drivers who have been arrested countless times for drunk driving? What about drunk drivers who have been involved in prior drunk driving accidents? It's still not enough. Even though a drunk driver may be intentionally intoxicated, and may have intended to drive drunk, that still does not equate to an intent to injure. A 1993 Maryland Court of Appeals case, Komornik v. Sparks, clarified that drunk driving does not equal "actual malice."

In an effort to shake things up, one bill (House Bill 469/Senate Bill 351) before the Maryland legislature last session was an effort to allow juries to decide punitive damages where a negligent driver was drunk (either above 0.15 BAC, or above 0.08 BAC with other conditions). One interesting provision was that insurance companies could exclude coverage for punitive damages where their driver was drunk. Realistically, this means that it would be uncommon for anyone injured by a drunk driver to receive a penny in punitive damages--if insurance won't cover it, there isn't likely to be many assets available. Unless, of course, the drunk driver was the heiress to some family fortune. Sadly, that bill did not pass. Maybe next year.

So for now, no punitive damages.

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Punishing Drunk Drivers For Maryland Car Accidents

February 14, 2012

I'm Just a Bill, Part 2In the spirit of our most recent post on raising the insurance coverage in Maryland for certain MAIF claims, let's talk about another proposed bill before the Maryland legislature, one seeking to impose punitive damages on some drunk drivers.

First, you should know that punitive damages in Maryland are nearly impossible to get in car accident lawsuits. By nearly impossible, I mean impossible. By impossible, I mean it pretty much has to be intentional murder. Lawyers have tried, but even the driver who has been arrested three times for drunk driving, has been in two accidents while driving drunk, and finally kills an entire family, does not get punitive damages.

Punitive damages are damages unrelated to the actual injuries in a case. In most cases, judges and juries pronounce a verdict of compensatory damages, which is meant to replace losses suffered in a Maryland car accident--medical expenses, lost wages, mental anguish, inconvenience, and the like. Punitive damages are linked directly to the person who caused the harm--the worse the behavior of that person, the more punitive damages a judge or jury could impose. Punitives are meant to punish the wrongdoer.

So the legislation is designed to change this. House Bill 469 and Senate Bill 351, in their current form, would allow a judge or jury to punish a habitual drunk driver in the following circumstances:

  1. The drunk driver has a blood alcohol level of 0.15 or more (the legal limit in Maryland is 0.08); or
  2. The drunk driver has a blood alcohol level of 0.08 and (pick one):
    • Is driving with a revoked license (basically because of alcohol and/or drugs);
    • Is driving with a license suspended for drug or alcohol abuse;
    • Is driving with a license that was suspended or revoked because of points imposed for driving under the influence of alcohol or homicide by motor vehicle;
    • In the past 5 years, had some sort of negative court ruling for various alcohol/drug and traffic offenses.
Here's where the bill gets a little fanciful. It also allows insurance companies to write provisions in their contracts that specifically exclude coverage for these punitive damages. So, assuming these bills become laws, here's what will happen: a driver who had his license revoked for one too many drunk driving arrests goes on yet another bender, this time killing a pedestrian who was lawfully in a cross-walk. The family of that pedestrian sues, and recovers whatever they can from the driver's insurance company. That's what insurance is for, and insurance companies accept that risk. However, the family also seeks and receives punitive damages. The insurance company will not pay it, meaning the only source of recompense is from the driver directly. Unless he is independently wealthy, the family will end up trying to garnish his wages (assuming he has any--hopefully he'll be in jail), at which point the driver will declare bankruptcy, and it is case closed with no punitive damages money changing hands.

Really, this is a feel-good bill. It's not going to make trial lawyers any money. It's not going to make car accident victims or their families any money. But, maybe it will scare one or two people who do have something to lose (you know, all those celebrities who, for some reason, drive drunk when they could charter a helicopter ride home directly from the night club). If it manages to save one life, it's worth it. Call your legislators (find them here) and tell them that you support holding drunk drivers responsible for their behavior.