Punitive Damages Available in a Virginia Drunk Driving Accident

Last month, a bicyclist in Virginia Beach became seriously injured in a drunk driving accident. He was taken to the hospital for life-threatening injuries. Police arrested the driver of the passenger vehicle and charged him with a DUI. Unfortunately, drunk driving accidents just like this one happen every day in Virginia. Despite nonprofit groups and local government’s efforts to curb drunk driving, drunk drivers still kill and injure thousands of people every year.

You May be Entitled to Compensation After a Drunk Driving Accident 

If you or your loved one has been injured in a Virginia drunk driving accident, you may be entitled to compensation through a personal injury lawsuit. In a personal injury lawsuit, the victim can request economic and non-economic damages. When the defendant has acted egregiously, the court can choose to impose additional punitive damages to deter other people who might engage in the same bad behavior.

The Difference Between Compensatory and Punitive Damages

Most people immediately think about their compensatory damages, such as their medical costs and other expenses related to their injuries. Compensatory damages cover a wide range of expenses related to your accident injuries, such as:

  • Medical expenses
  • Future medical expenses
  • Compensation for lost income
  • Compensation for your property damage 

In addition to compensatory damages, successful plaintiffs are also entitled to non-economic damages. Non-economic damages are available for aspects of your injury that cannot be easily quantified, such as pain and suffering. On the other hand, punitive damages are not intended to compensate you for financial and emotional losses you have experienced from the injuries caused by a drunk driving accident. Additionally, courts always award economic and non-economic damages to successful plaintiffs in drunk-driving lawsuits. Courts do not always impose punitive damages. Virginia courts can only impose punitive damages in limited circumstances.

Are You Entitled to Punitive Damages?

As mentioned above, not every plaintiff is entitled to punitive damages. There are two legal grounds under Virginia personal injury law that justify a court in awarding punitive damages for a drunk-driving personal injury claim. In other words, your personal injury lawyer can demand punitive damages under Virginia law in the following circumstances:

  • The drunk driver who caused your car accident had a blood alcohol content level (BAC) of at least .15% when the car accident occurred,
  • The drunk driver knew or should have known that he or she was too impaired to operate the motor vehicle when the car accident occurred, and
  • The drunk driver’s intoxication was the proximate cause of your personal injury or your loved one’s death.

What if the Drunk Driver’s BAC Was Under .15%?

You might be wondering whether you can see punitive damages if the drunk driver who caused your injuries did not have a blood-alcohol level above .15%. Perhaps the driver’s blood-alcohol level was just under that amount, or the police did not take a blood alcohol test. In that case, you can still prove that you are entitled to punitive damages. You will need to show that the driver engaged in wildly reckless or malicious behavior. In these scenarios, a plaintiff can recover punitive damages under Virginia case law. The jury will be responsible for weighing the evidence to decide whether punitive damages are appropriate.

Virginia courts typically weigh the driver’s level of intoxication, the circumstances surrounding the car accident, and their past criminal convictions. The court will use the following standard to determine whether the defendant engaged in reckless or malicious behavior, that is, whether the driver’s actions were “sufficiently willful or wanton as to show a conscious disregard for the rights of others.” Proving this standard is challenging, and you will need an experienced drunk driving accident lawyer to help you.

In Huffman v. Love, 245 VA. 311, 427 S.E.2D 357 (1993), the defendant had a blood-alcohol level of 32% and was speeding when he collided with the plaintiff in a head-on car accident. The trial court denied the plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages, but the Supreme Court reversed and found enough evidence to prove the defendant’s conscious disregard for others’ safety. The court focused on the fact that the defendant had collided with another vehicle before the collision with the plaintiff, was speeding, and that his blood alcohol content was three times over the statutory limit. 

Proving That the Driver Engaged in Reckless or Malicious Behavior 

You will still need to prove that the driver who caused your car accident was intoxicated at the time of the accident. You can do so through several different means. Perhaps the law enforcement officers noted that the driver smelled like alcohol in the police report. A witness may have seen the driver swerving or driving way too fast before the accident. The driver may have admitted that he or she had been drinking before the car accident occurred. There could be other types of evidence, such as open containers of alcohol or a witness who knew that the driver drank at a restaurant or party before the accident occurred.

At the Straw Law Firm, we have helped many clients recover compensation and punitive damages in Virginia. We know how to conduct a thorough investigation into a drunk driving accident. We regularly work with experts, including accident reconstruction specialists, and investigators to prove that a drunk driver caused our clients’ injuries. The sooner you speak to one of our experienced lawyers, the sooner we can get to work investigating your case and building a persuasive legal defense.

Contact a Lynchburg Drunk Driving Accident Lawyer Today

If you or your loved one have been injured in a drunk driving accident in Lynchburg, you could be entitled to punitive damages. Additionally, if your loved one died in a drunk-driving accident, you could be entitled to damages through a wrongful death lawsuit that includes punitive damages. Coping with a serious injury or a loved one can be devastating, but recovering financial compensation can help you and your family in the future. Contact Straw Law Firm today to schedule your free initial consultation.

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