The Key to Large Personal Injury Recovery Against Drunk Drivers: Punitive Damages
- Shah D'Egidio
By Narek Mnatsakanian
Every day, nearly 30 people die in car accidents that involve a drunk driver. That is one death every 48 minutes, which costs taxpayers approximately $51 billion annually. Most tragically, about half of these deaths are child passengers under the age of 14.
MAAD estimates that nearly 300,000 incidents of drunk driving occur every day and these incidents lead to approximately 10,000 fatal crashes, a frightening number that lawmakers and law enforcement struggle to combat and contain. Likewise, this up-hill battle against drunk driving for lawmakers and law enforcement has proved most challenging in San Diego.
San Diego County has experienced a staggering increase in DUI arrests. For example, in a mere twelve-hour span, from New Years Eve to New Years Day 2014, there were 324 DUI arrests in the State of California, 14 of which were in San Diego. In that same time frame that led into this year’s holiday, there were 309 DUI arrests statewide, 20 of which were in San Diego. Though DUI arrests in the State of California decreased by 4.6 percent during this year’s holiday, San Diego Country conversely experienced a shocking 42.9 percent increase in DUI arrests.
A civil lawsuit is the most important step to recover damages for losses and injuries suffered by victims in car accidents that involve a drunk driver. Such victims deserve to know that punitive damages are available for recovery and help ensure that victims injured by drunk drivers have more financial stability.
What Are Punitive Damages
Punitive damages are subjective, jury-determined amounts awarded to those injured by a drunk driver. Fundamentally, punitive damages are intended to punish and humiliate the drunk driver, and deter others from drunk driving.
California Civil Code Section 3294, California’s punitive damages statute, states that “in an action for the breach of an obligation not arising from contract, where it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant has been guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice, the plaintiff, in addition to actual damages, may recover damages for the sake of example and by way of punishing the defendant.” Therefore, a recovery of punitive damages requires evidence that the defendant “has been guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice.”
In 1979, California extended punitive damages to drunk drivers in a case called Taylor v. Superior Court. The Court explained in Taylor that, to justify an award for punitive damages, a plaintiff must prove that the “defendant was aware of the probable dangerous consequences of his conduct, and that he wilfully and deliberately failed to avoid those consequences.” Further, the court stated that a defendant who willfully “consumers alcoholic beverages to the point of intoxication, knowing that he thereafter must operate a motor vehicle, thereby combining sharply impaired physical and mental faculties with a vehicle capable of great force and speed, reasonably may be held to exhibit a conscious disregard of the safety of others.” Thus, victims injured by drunk drivers can plead and support a claim for punitive damages in their personal injury cases.
Punitive Damages Recovery: A Path for Enduring Stability
Nonetheless, insured drunk drivers often believe they can hide behind their attorney. However, although these reckless individuals might believe that the only financial loss they may suffer is their attorney’s fees to defend them in their prosecution, these drunk drivers should actually brace themselves for much larger expenses. Punitive damages amounts can potentially be very large, depending on the particular circumstances of each case. Specifically, California law on punitive damages provides legal remedies to those that have been harmed by egregious or reckless conduct, and a perfect example of such conduct is drunk driving.
Victimized plaintiffs deserve to know their remedies for the often incalculable costs of destruction and anguish caused by drunk drivers, because an award of punitive damages can be the difference between financial woes or sustainable financial stability.
 San Diego DUI News, The Real Effects of Drunk Driving, WordPress (Aug. 7 2011), https://sandiegodui.wordpress.com/tag/dui-statistics/.
 See MADD35, Drunk Driving Statistics, MADD, http://www.madd.org/drunk-driving/about/drunk-driving-statistics.html?referrer=https://www.google.com/ (last visited Sept. 16, 2015).
 Joel Hoffmann, DUI Arrests Up From Last New Year’s Eve, San Diego Union Tribune (Jan 1. 2015, 6:18 PM), http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/2015/jan/01/drunken-driving-new-years-freeway-fatality/.
 See Taylor v. Superior Court, 24 Cal. 3d 890 (Cal. 1979).
 Id. at 895.
 Id. at 897.