By: Chris Reynolds
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Why It Matters If the At-Fault Driver Was Drunk
Any automobile accident that results in injury is difficult to endure if you are the injured person. You might lose time from work, have to endure pain, need to go to multiple doctor appointments, and incur medical expenses. The law permits the injured person to ask a jury for “compensatory damages,” which are generally used to compensate the person for things they lost in the past or are likely to lose in the future. Generally, the injured person must prove that it is reasonably likely that the car crash caused the medical bills, lost wages, etc.
One factor that can change a personal injury case significantly is when the at-fault driver is intoxicated at the time of the accident. When a drunk driver causes an automobile accident, the law permits the injured person to ask for an additional type of damages called punitive damages. Punitive damages are intended to punish a person for engaging in some sort of activity that the law wants to punish. It is hoped that this punishment will reduce the activity that is being punished.
Trials are sometimes divided into various parts as directed by the judge. For example, if it is unclear who is at fault in an accident, a judge might order that a trial first take place that only considers who is at fault for the accident, and if the jury does find that the defendant was at fault, a second trial would then be held to determine the value of the injuries and how much the injured person should receive in compensation. Similar to this, in a case with a drunk driver, a judge might divide the compensation part of the trial into two trials: one trial to decide the amount of compensatory damages (medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, etc.), and a second trial to determine the amount of punitive damages (to punish the intoxicated driver).
This scenario arose in Florida recently in GEICO v. Dixon, 42 Fla. L. Weekly D101b (January 4, 2017). In the Dixon case, Mr. Dixon was injured in an automobile accident, and it was determined that the at-fault driver was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the accident. The at-fault driver did not have any bodily injury coverage. Fortunately, the injured person had uninsured motorist coverage through GEICO and so he made an uninsured motorist claim to compensate him for his injuries. After settlement negotiations broke down because GEICO would not pay the $20,000 uninsured motorist policy limits, Mr. Dixon sued both GEICO and the at-fault driver.
The at-fault driver admitted that he was intoxicated and that he was at fault for the accident. GEICO asked that the court divide the damages phase of the trial into two parts: first, the compensatory damages phase (medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering, etc.), and then the punitive damages phase against only the at-fault driver to punish him for causing bodily injury while voluntarily intoxicated in a car crash. The theory as stated by the judge was that “punitive damages are warranted against Mr. Alcebo (the at-fault driver) as a punishment to him and as a deterrent to others because he was driving under the influence of alcoholic beverages.” Further, though the uninsured motorist carrier “stands in the shoes of the at-fault driver” for purposes of compensatory damages, the uninsured motorist insurance carrier is not responsible for punitive damages as a result of an at-fault drunk driver.
Accordingly, the appellate court concluded that there should be no mention of alcohol during the compensatory damages part of the trial, and that the intoxication should be limited to the punitive damages phase of the trial.
Drunk drivers can add many subtle complexities to a personal injury claim, so please speak with an experienced trial attorney to discuss your options.