The Maryland legislature is considering a bill that would permit victims of drunk drivers to recover punitive damages in civil lawsuits.  House Bill 987, sponsored by Delegates Waldstreicher, Anderson, Barkley, Conaway, Lee, Malone, Simmons and Smigiel, is similar to other bills that have been attempted and failed in the past (at least since 2000).

Punitive damages are damages designed to punish the defendant for bad behavior.  Unlike compensatory damages, which are designed to help heal the plaintiff or make him “whole,” punitive damages are akin to taking away a cookie or sending a disobedient child to his room.  Right now, punitive damages in automobile accident cases are all-but impossible.  The Maryland standard for punitive damages is steep.  A plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s conduct was malicious, or the result of evil motive or intent to injure.  This is called “actual malice.”  Basically, to recover punitive damages, the defendant must have intended to cause injury.  This is why punitives have never been permitted against drunk drivers in Maryland.

The gist of House Bill 987 is that it increases the standard of proof from “preponderance of the evidence” to “clear and convincing evidence.”  It would apply where the defendant driver was operating at a BAC of 0.08.  Also required would be a suspended or revoked license, or a conviction or PBJ for some transportation article violations (past 5 years).  There are a few more details, so check the bill if you are curious.

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce has opposed these bills in the past.  Their argument is that making punitive damages available in one type of case makes it more likely that they will be made available in other types of cases.  This is the classic slippery slope argument, and seems to us to be without merit.  The legislature would decide each instance of punitive damages separately, and the courts would apply the punitive damages law as set by statute or precedent.  It’s not going to be the Wild West, out here.

This is a nice feel-good bill.  It’s not likely to amount to much practically, however.  Let’s say a drunk driver causes a horrendous accident.  The plaintiff, whether the victim or a surviving family member, gets a verdict of punitive damages at trial.  It will likely be impossible to collect those punitive damages because the insurance companies will have a clause in the contract preventing the recovery of punitives, and the defendant is not likely to be independently wealthy.  So, most of these verdicts will go unpaid.

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If you have questions about your rights against drunk drivers, contact our automobile accident lawyers at 1-800-776-4529, or tell us about your case online.  We’ll put our expertise to work for you right away.

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