A woman injured in an alleged Indiana drunk driving accident this month won her appeal seeking pursuit of punitive damages against the defendant. The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to the defendant. The ruling is a victory for victims of Indiana drunk drivers in once again affirming the well-established view of courts in Indiana (going at least as far back as the Indiana Supreme Court’s 1985 ruling in Williams v. Crist) about the egregious wrong one does in taking the wheel while drunk. In that case nearly 35 years ago, the state high court held unequivocally: A person guilty of impaired driving is automatically guilty of the “willful and wanton misconduct” requirement necessary to to seek punitive damages in an Indiana injury lawsuit.
Why Punitive Damages in Indiana Drunk Driving Claims Matter
If you suffer injury and/or other losses because of somebody else’s negligence, there are two general kinds of damages you can pursue. The first, compensatory damages, applies in every case and the goal is monetary compensation that aims to “make the plaintiff whole.”
Of course, our Munster drunk driving injury lawyers know that there really is nothing – no amount of money – that can achieve that goal. There is absolutely no price tag on catastrophic injuries or death, and those affected would give back every dime if it meant they could regain what they lost. Still, the goal of compensatory damages is all about what a plaintiff has lost and what can be offered to help them heal to the fullest extent possible. The amount is supposed to be calculated in a way that equitably compensates a person, sometimes dollar-for-dollar (i.e., medical bills), but other times for intangible losses like pain and suffering and loss of consortium.
The second kind of damages you can seek are punitive damages. These are intended for a very different purpose than compensatory damages and plaintiffs are required to ask for a special hearing to get permission to even ask the jury to award them.
Punitive damages in Indiana are NOT all about the plaintiff, even though the plaintiff is the beneficiary. Punitive damages are about the conduct of the defendant – and potential future defendants to come. They are awarded to punish conduct verified as willful, wanton and lacking in care for the probable injury consequences they will have.
Courts have held the question of whether a plaintiff can prove by clear and convincing evidence he/she has reasonable grounds to ask the jury for a punitive damage award is a matter of law for judges to decide prior to trial. However, the question of whether the plaintiff HAS met the proof burden entitling them to damages – and if so, how much they should receive – are questions of fact for a jury.
Not many types of injury claims in this state will have a legal or factual basis on which to assert these punitive damages, which per IC 34-51-3 are added to one’s compensatory damages for a maximum penalty of three times that amount or $50,000. Drunk driving torts are unique in this respect.
Indiana Drunk Driving Defendant’s Own Words Establish Grounds for Punitive Damages
As our Munster drunk driving injury attorneys understand it, the plaintiff began the pursuit of punitive damages from a unique disadvantage – all because the defendant fled the scene after colliding with her.
The plaintiff alleges the defendant got drunk, got behind the wheel of his car and rear-ended her. He is accused of immediately fleeing the scene without stopping to talk to plaintiff or make sure she was physically alright, as the statute requires. A police officer discovered the defendants car a few hours later, tracked him down and asked him if he’d been involved in a crash. Defendant gave a few different answers to several of the officer’s questions. The officer tested plaintiff’s breath-alcohol level at that point, which registered at 0.2-0.03, less than the 0.08 required to prove impairment. The police impounded his vehicle and arrested him for fleeing the scene of a crash.
In the answers the defendant gave to the officer – after his truck was impounded yet before he was under arrest – he indicated several times he’d been drinking. The amounts varied. Although he said he wasn’t driving at the time of the crash, he later admitted being behind the wheel.
The defendant was right in that police didn’t have enough evidence to criminally prosecute him for DUI with injury. But the proof burden is lower in civil cases, and his own testimony, the appellate court ruled, formed the basis for plaintiff’s reasonable grounds to ask for punitive damages against him for her serious injuries.
Indiana Injury Attorney Burton A. Padove handles personal injury claims throughout northern Indiana, including Highland, Gary and Hammond. Call Toll Free 877-446-5294.