Is My Injury Case or Insurance Claim Worth More Because the Car Accident Was Caused By a Drunk Driver?
The Monterey car accident attorneys at the Piccuta Law Group often represent clients who were injured by drunk drivers. Clients injured by drunk drivers usually want to know if their cases are worth more because the car accident was caused by a drunk driver. This is a question that any client who was injured by a drunk driver would naturally want to know the answer to. However, the answer is “not necessarily and it depends.”
Although, getting hit by a drunk driver may make certain aspects of the case easier, it does not mean that the case is worth more. Cases are valued based upon the damages someone is caused. In a car accident case that causes injuries, those damages include several items. Most notably: past and future pain and suffering, past and future medical expenses, past and future lost earnings, and the inability to participate in activities of daily living (both in the future and past), among other things.
For example, a person who is hit by a drunk driver and is not injured has a case that is worth nothing. It does not matter that the client was hit by a drunk driver if they have no injuries. What drives damages are the injuries and expenses, not the conduct of the at-fault driver.
Clients, and people in general, usually have a hard time grasping this concept. In valuing a case and deciding what to award an injured victim, people, including jurors, often want to know why the accident occurred. They want this information to help them compute the amount of damages an injured person should be awarded. For example:
- Did the car accident occur because the driver was texting?
- Did the car accident occur because the driver was looking for a lighter to light his or her cigarette?
- Did the car accident happen because the driver was on the phone and distracted?
- Did the car accident occur because the driver was looking in her vanity mirror and applying makeup?
- Did the car accident occur because the driver was on prescription drugs and fell asleep?
- Did the car accident occur because the driver was speeding?
- Did the car accident Occur because the driver violated a traffic code?
- Did the car accident happen because the driver was drunk?
In reality, if the at-fault driver or his insurance company admits fault, then this information does not matter. Typically, the Court will not even allow a jury to hear this evidence, much less consider what caused the at-fault driver to crash, if the at-fault driver has accepted liability for causing the crash. At that point, what caused the crash is irrelevant and the case is simply about the injured person’s damages.
Of course, it can make a case easier with respect to proving liability or fault. If the other side is not willing to admit fault, then evidence of the other driver’s drunk driving or drug intoxication could become highly relevant. It could be relevant to prove that the intoxicated driver had slowed reaction time, that the at fault driver may not be able to recall events of the crash accurately, that the at fault driver had impaired motor functioning, as well as several other issues useful for proving fault. As such, being hit by a drunk driver may make it easier to prove your case. However, it does not necessarily mean that your injury case is worth more.
Can I Get Punitive Damages Against a Drunk Driver Who Hit Me and Caused the Car Accident?
There is one exception to the general rule that a crash caused by a drunk driver does not necessarily increase the value of an injury claim. That exception is if there are punitive damages available. Punitive damages are punishment damages or damages to make an example out of someone.
Under California law, punitive damages may be awarded if there is a finding of malice, oppression or fraud. However, this typically never applies in a car accident case. Most car accident cases arise out of a mistake or negligence. Even if a drunk driver causes a car accident, it is likely the last thing he or she wanted to do, because now, he or she faces criminal liability in addition to all the headaches associated with the car accident itself.
Punitive damages could apply if the at-fault driver intentionally tried to crash into someone to cause an injury. In other words, if the driver intentionally used his or her vehicle as a weapon. It could also apply, if the at-fault driver is found to have willfully and purposefully conducted himself in a way where he knew he was likely to cause injuries to others. This can apply to drunk driving or intoxicated drivers. However, this second scenario, applying it to drunk or intoxicated drivers, requires an exceptional set of circumstances.
California Law Addressing Punitive Damages in Car Accident Cases Caused By Drunk or Intoxicated Drivers
In 1979, the California Supreme Court specifically addressed whether punitive damages could be recovered in a car accident case for negligence. The case that decided this issue is Taylor v. Superior Court and it is still good law. The case held that the “conscious disregard of the safety of others may constitute malice…in order to justify an award of punitive damages” if the injured party proves “that the defendant was aware of the probable dangerous consequences of his conduct, and that he willfully and deliberately failed to avoid those consequences.”
In the Taylor case, the drunk driver who caused the crash and injuries to others, had an extensive drunk driving history. The allegations against the at-fault driver were:
- That he had previously driven drunk and caused a serious car accident
- That he had been arrested and convicted of drunk driving on several previous occasions
- That at the time of the incident he had recently completed probation for drunk driving
- That one of the probation conditions was that he refrain from driving for six hours after consuming any alcohol
- That at the time of the crash he was facing an additional pending drunk driving charge
- That he was transporting alcohol at the time of the car accident
- That he was on intoxicants at the time of the car accident
- That he was simultaneously drinking and driving at the time of the car accident
Based on these extreme and extraordinary facts, the court found that his actions could support a punitive damages claim because he was aware that his conduct could likely cause serious and grave injuries to others but that he willfully and deliberately disregarded that fact.
There have been almost no published California cases further addressing what is required to allow a punitive damages claim to proceed against a drunk driver after the Taylor case discussed above. In 1982, three years after Taylor was decided, the California Supreme Court issued a decision in Peterson v. Superior Court. That decision expanded Taylor allowing it to be applied retroactively.
Essentially, the Peterson decision held that the Taylor rule—that punitive damages are recoverable from an intoxicated driver who caused injuries in a car accident—could be applied to cases and lawsuits filed before the Taylor decision was issued. However, there are no published cases since, that set forth what type of conduct allows for a punitive damages claim against a drunk driver. As such, the only guidance from the California Supreme Court, as to when punitive damages would be appropriate against a drunk driver, are under the extreme facts set forth in Taylor above.
Whether or not a person has a punitive damages claim, against a drunk driver who crashed into him or her and caused injuries, require a legal analysis. A skilled car accident attorney should evaluate the case, facts and history of the driver involved. Each situation must be decided and analyzed on a case-by-case basis.
Contact One of Our Car Accident Attorneys If You Were Injured By A Drunk Driver
If you or a loved one were injured by a drunk driver, contact the Piccuta Law Group today. Our attorneys have experience handling car accident cases against drunk drivers. We know the law and will be able to tell you if you can recover for your car accident and resulting injuries. A consultation is free of charge and there is no fee unless we win your case and recover for you. Contact our office today. A skilled personal injury attorney is available now.
About the author: The content on this page was written by California civil rights lawyer and Monterey personal injury attorney Charles “Tony” Piccuta. Piccuta graduated with honors from Indiana University-Maurer School of Law in Bloomington, Indiana (Ranked Top 35 US News & World Report 2018). Piccuta took and passed the State bars of Arizona, California, Illinois and Nevada (all on the first try). He actively practices throughout California and Arizona. He is a winning trial attorney that regularly handles serious personal injury cases and civil rights lawsuits. He has obtained six and seven figure verdicts in both state and federal court. He has been recognized by Super Lawyers for six years straight. He is AV Rated by Martindale Hubble. He is a member of the Consumer Attorneys of California, American Association for Justice, National Police Accountability Project, Arizona Association of Justice, Maricopa County Bar Association and Scottsdale Bar Association, among other organizations.
Disclaimer: The information on this web site is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Reading and relying upon the content on this page does not create an attorney-client relationship. If you are seeking legal advice, you should contact our law firm for a free consultation and to discuss your specific case and issues. The information on this page constitutes an attorney communication and advertising.