Are Drunk Drivers Liable for Punitive Damages?

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When a drunk driver causes an accident, they must face the consequences. North Carolina has strict laws against driving drunk that have tough penalties for offenders.

Punitive damages are typically only awarded to victims of truly reckless or malicious drivers. Drunk driving often fits into this category.

What Is Punitive Damage?

Punitive damages are meant to punish someone for their actions and to discourage others from committing the same offense.

According to North Carolina’s General Statute Chapter 1D, punitive damages are designed to punish the offender for “egregiously wrongful acts” such as driving drunk and the impairment causing an accident.

When someone has to pay punitive damages, this amount is in addition to compensation for damages. In addition to punitive damages, the defendant could end up paying you for the following:

  • Medical Expenses
  • Lost Wages
  • Estimated Loss of Future Earnings
  • Rehabilitation Costs
  • Prescription Medication
  • Pain and Suffering
  • Property Damage
  • Wrongful Death

Medical Expenses

You will be fully compensated for all accumulated medical bills along with future medical expenses that you may receive to treat any accident-related injuries.

Be sure to get medical attention as soon as possible after the accident so that you will have documentation linking your injuries to the accident.

Lost Wages

The time you spend unable to work while recovering from your injuries is time that you are not earning your regular income.

You may be using up your allotted sick time or disability, but these often pay a reduced rate and might not last long enough for your recovery. You may lose your job entirely.

You should be compensated for these financial losses.

Estimated Loss of Future Earnings

If you have to work at a reduced capacity due to injuries caused by the accident, you can claim your loss of future earnings.

Rehabilitation Costs

Depending on the nature of your injuries, there is a strong possibility that you will require some type of rehabilitation. Physical therapy, chiropractic care, pain management, and psychotherapy are some examples of rehabilitation.

Prescription Medication

The cost of medicines that your doctors prescribe for you because of your accident will be reimbursed. This amount includes the cost of medication you will be required to take long-term as long as it directly results from the accident.

Pain and Suffering

Common injuries, such as brain and spinal damage, are debilitating and permanent. All pain, the reduction of your enjoyment of life, and emotional damage will receive a value for your compensation.

Property Damage

Your vehicle and whatever property you had with you that was damaged during the accident will be added up for the cost of repair, replacement, or any reduction in value.

The same applies to damage to your property that the defendant caused if they were in a single-car accident and damaged your home.

Wrongful Death

The family of victims who were killed by a drunk driver can file a claim for wrongful death. If convicted, the defendant will have to pay monetary compensation to the family or dependents.

The defendant will likely face homicide charges in criminal court as well.

Does My Case Qualify For Punitive Damages?

For a case to qualify for punitive damages, you must prove two things.

  1. Your case qualifies for compensatory damages.
  2. An aggravating factor exists.

An aggravating factor necessary for punitive damages has to be one of the following:

  • Willful or wanton conduct
  • Fraud
  • Malice

Willful or Wanton Conduct

The aggravating factor that applies to drunk driving is willful or wanton conduct.

Willful or wanton conduct is defined by North Carolina’s statutes as “the conscious and intentional disregard of and indifference to the rights and safety of others, which the defendant knows or should know is reasonably likely to result in injury, damage, or other harm.”

Willful or wanton conduct means more than gross negligence.

Limitations on Punitive Damages

There is a cap on the amount of punitive damages that can be awarded. This cap is three times the amount of compensatory damages or $250,000, whichever is greater.

However, this limit does not apply to drunk drivers. If you were injured in a drunk driving accident, there is no limit to how much you can be awarded through punitive damages.

Punitive Damages Claims

Filing a claim for damages can be challenging, depending on the circumstances of your accident. Filing for punitive damages is complex and requires an experienced attorney to recover the maximum amount possible.

The attorneys at Tatum & Atkinson are prepared to gather the evidence needed for a successful claim. This evidence can include the driver’s activities before the accident:

  • Bar Tabs
  • Restaurant Receipts
  • Witness Statements
  • Social Networking Sites

We also obtain the test results for the driver’s blood alcohol content. According to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, the legal limit for alcohol in someone’s blood is 0.08. The defendant may try to argue that although their blood alcohol level was over the legal limit, they were not actually impaired.

To combat this defense strategy, we procure a toxicologist who specializes in analyzing breath and blood samples for alcohol and have them provide expert testimony to prove impairment.

We use the observations of the driver described in the police report as well as the results of any field sobriety tests that were conducted. We will also find witness statements of people who saw the defendant before, at the time of, and after the accident.

Who Pays Punitive Damages?

In North Carolina, punitive damages are insurable unless the insurance policy specifically states that it will not cover punitive damages.

Since the purpose of this claim is to punish the defendant, the court may take any insurance coverage amount and adjust the punitive damages amount to exceed the policy limit.

How Much Should I Claim for Punitive Damages?

You may file a claim for punitive damages, but the court decides the amount.

In order to receive the maximum possible amount for your accident, it is important to gather and present as much evidence as possible to show both the willful or wanton conduct of the defendant and how substantially your life has been impacted by the defendant’s actions.

Are Punitive Damages Ever Excessive?

There are some juries that will award large amounts for punitive damages because of the nature of the accident. However, the judge often reduces excessive amounts that may be considered unfair to the defendant.

For example, someone who only makes $15,000 per year cannot afford to pay $250,000 in punitive damages on top of compensatory damages as well as any fines from criminal court.

The judge will also take into consideration the defendant’s intent, subsequent remorse, and criminal charges, which are also considered punishment. If the defendant believes the awarded punitive damages are excessive, they are able to appeal the decision as well.

Tatum & Atkinson Is Ready To Fight For You

If you or someone you love has been involved in an accident with a drunk driver, we know how unfair and stressful your situation is. Call us today at (800) LAW-0804 for a free consultation to discuss your accident and your options for compensation.

We know what it takes to fight the legal battle for what you are legally entitled to receive.

Avoid aggravating complications and let our experienced attorneys handle the complexities of your case. We will get your maximum payment in the shortest possible time frame.