You were injured by a Drunk Driver in your Virginia Car Accident Case? (A discussion of Punitive Damages).

If you were injured by a Virginia drunk driver, you might have Punitive Damages claim.  Different from medical bills, lost wages, pain & suffering, punitive damages send a statement that drunk driving will not be tolerated. 

Not every Virginia car accident case involving a drunk driver is eligible for punitive damages.  In fact, in our experience, most drunk driving accident cases won’t qualify for punitive damages.  Indeed, Virginia law only allows punitive damages in specific circumstances.

Under Virginia Code Section 8.01-44.5, punitive damages may be allowed when the defendant had a blood alcohol level of .15 or above.  The statute requires other elements to be proved. But always look to see what the defendant’s BAC was when he or she hit you.

The Defendant, “unreasonably refused” to submit to a BAC test.

Under Code Section 8.01-44.5, Punitive Damages may be awarded if the Defendant unreasonably refused to submit to having their blood alcohol level tested.  Whether they “unreasonably” refused will be covered by Virginia’s Implied Consent law under Virginia Code Section 18.268.2. While oversimplifying, Virginia law requires one to submit to a blood-alcohol test if they are driving upon a Virginia “highway,” and law enforcement possesses “probable cause” that they are drunk driving.  

Having tried countless DUI cases from the criminal defense perspective, James has a thorough understanding of Virginia’s Implied Consent laws.  So, make sure to reach out.

It’s still possible that your case may be eligible for punitive damages under Virginia “Common Law.”  Common Law is a body of law created by the courts over decades, which define the rules by legal precedent.  Unfortunately, qualifying under the Common Law is very difficult.

Time and time again, the Courts have rejected punitive damage claims in cases that would seem to qualify.  See Puent v. Dickens, 245 Va. 217, (1993)(punitive damage claim barred where drunk driver rear-ended plaintiff while driving “very fast” and later plead guilty to reckless driving);  Hack v. Nester, 241 Va. 499 (1990) (punitive damages not appropriate  when the Defendant consumed a pitcher of beer before the accident, had two prior DUIs, and he operated his car at night without a left headlight and suffering from night blindness, and killed the plaintiff when they collided head-on); Huffman v. Love, 245 Va. 311 (1993) (insufficient evidence for punitive damages when a drunk driver drove his vehicle into an oncoming lane of traffic just after rear-ended another car while speeding and then failed to stop at the scene of the accident).  

With that said, the Courts have permitted punitive damages before.  See Booth v. Robertson, 236 Va. 269 (1988) (punitive damages should have been presented to the jury when the Defendant drove his vehicle down the wrong way of a highway while passing cars honking their horns and blinking their lights at him, and he hit another driver head-on.) 

As you can see, the bar is very high in the category of cases. But if your case involves a drunk driver, it’s still something to consider.  

If my case is eligible for Punitive Damages, how much is that worth?

The answer to this is really – there is no clear answer.  While one jury may award one amount, another would award a different amount.  What we do know, however, is that the Virginia legislature has put a cap on punitive damages at $350,000 under Virginia Code Section 8.01-38.1.

Still have questions?

Make sure to check out our Personal Injury & Criminal Defense Practice Pages where we’ve answered many other questions you likely have.  James Abrenio is a Fairfax-Based Personal Injury & Criminal Defense attorney who practices throughout Northern Virginia. You can learn more about James Abrenio, some of our Prior Results, and Read Our Reviews.  Make sure to contact us at Ph. 703-570-4180 for your Free Consultation.