What Are A Victim’s Rights Following A Drunk Driving Accident?
Each year, thousands of people are injured or killed nationwide in car accidents caused by drunk drivers. Indeed, barely a week goes by before there are news reports of a DUI-related accident on Florida’s highways. Although there are stiff criminal penalties involved for driving under the influence–particularly when innocent people are harmed–what about the victims’ rights to seek damages in a personal injury lawsuit?
Drunk Driving and Punitive Damages
Under Florida law, every driver is currently required to carry Personal Injury Protection (PIP) insurance. This covers basic losses for medical expenses and lost wages arising from a car accident, regardless of who was at fault. Accident victims can only “step outside” of this no-fault system if they sustain significant and permanent injuries, such as disfigurement or the loss of a limb. If that is the case, then the victims can sue the responsible driver directly.
In a personal injury case, the plaintiff is entitled to seek both economic and non-economic damages. The former covers tangible losses like medical bills and lost income. The latter deals with intangible items like pain and suffering.
Normally, a jury cannot award punitive damages in a personal injury lawsuit. These refer to damages designed to punish or deter certain conduct. Florida law only permits a personal injury victim to seek punitive damages if they can prove–based on “clear and convincing evidence”–that the defendant “was personally guilty of intentional misconduct or gross negligence.”
Drunk driving usually qualifies as intentional misconduct or gross negligence. Indeed, the Florida Supreme Court has expressly stated that the voluntary act of driving while intoxicated is proof of a “sufficiently reckless attitude” to justify submitting the question of punitive damages to a jury. So if the plaintiff can prove the defendant was drunk driving, there is a good chance the jury will award some measure of punitive damages.
At the same time, it is important to understand the possible limits of a punitive damages award. Unlike economic and non-economic damages, punitive damages are normally not covered by a driver’s auto insurance policy. This means that even if the jury decides to award punitive damages, the defendant may not have the financial means to actually pay up.
Does a Criminal DUI Conviction Matter in a Personal Injury Case?
One question we often get regarding drunk driving accidents is, “Does it matter if the driver was convicted of DUI in criminal court?” The short answer is that civil and criminal trials are completely separate affairs. So even if a defendant is never charged or convicted with criminal drunk driving, that does not prevent an injured party from successfully pursuing a personal injury claim in civil court.
On the other hand, if a drunk driver is convicted of a criminal offense, that conviction may be used as evidence by the victims in any subsequent civil trial.
If you have additional questions or concerns about your legal rights following a drunk driving accident and would like to speak with an experienced West Palm Beach personal injury attorney, Contact Leifer & Ramirez today to schedule a free consultation.