Monetary Damages in California Drunk Driving Accidents

Generally, in a an auto accident, a plaintiff is only entitled to receive their monetary damages and an aware for pain and suffering. These damages consist of past and future medical expenses, as well as lost wages and loss of earning capacity. However, if an intoxicated driver strikes you or your vehicle, you may be entitled to an award of punitive damages against the intoxicated driver.

California Vehicle Code § 23152a makes it misdemeanor to drive a vehicle when a person is "under the influence" of alcohol. The code states that “it is unlawful for any person who is under the influence of any alcoholic beverage or drug, or under the combined influence of any alcoholic beverage and drug, to drive a vehicle."

As such, if the driver of the vehicle was arrested for driving under the influence, then he is considered to be negligent per se. California Evidence Code § 669 codifies the common law doctrine of negligence per se as follows: (1) You violated a statute, ordinance, or regulation of a public entity; (2) the violation of that statute proximately caused death or injury to person or property; and (3) the death or injury resulted from an occurrence of the nature which the statute, ordinance, or regulation was designed to prevent. Here, it is clear that the above code is applicable to the present matter when an intoxicated individual causes a car accident resulting in injuries to you.

Additionally, an intoxicated party may not excuse his inability to operate a motor vehicle on the grounds that he was intoxicated. If you have impaired your mind with liquor and chose to drive a vehicle while impaired, you may not attempt to then excuse your accident as simply stating “it would not have happened if I had not been drinking.” Yates v. Morotti (1932) 120 Cal. App. 710. That makes perfect sense but people have argued the above as a defense.

The California Civil Code § 3294 states the following in relevant part, “in an action for the breach of an obligation not arising from contract, where it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant has been guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice, the plaintiff, in addition to the actual damages, may recover damages for the sake of example and by way of punishing the defendant.”

As can be determined by the above statute, a recovery of punitive damages requires a showing that the defendant "has been guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice." The case law in California has “uniformly recognized that proof of negligence, even gross negligence, or recklessness is insufficient to warrant an award of punitive damages.” Dawes v. Superior Court (1980) 111 Cal. App. 3d 82, 87. However, causing an accident while driving while intoxicated is a different story entirely.

In 1979, the California Supreme Court extended punitive damages to drunk drivers. Taylor v. Superior Court (1979) 24 Cal. 3d 890. In Peterson v. Superior Court (1982) 31 Cal. 3d 147, the California Supreme Court addressed the implications of the holding in the Taylor case has on coverage for injuries caused by drunk drivers. The court held that an award of punitive damages in such circumstances was uninsurable, which means that the intoxicated individual who hit you will have to pay from his own pocket. However, the Court still noted that an insurance company may be obligated to pay the compensatory damages portion of the award, meaning that which they would normally have to pay.

The Court has noted that in order to justify an award of punitive damages under the theory of conscious disregard, the plaintiff must prove that the “defendant was aware of the probable dangerous consequences of his conduct, and that he wilfully and deliberately failed to avoid those consequences.” Taylor v. Superior Court (1979) 24 Cal. 3d 890, 895, 896.

The Court further noted that a an individual who willfully “consumes alcoholic beverages to the point of intoxication, knowing that he thereafter must operate a motor vehicle, thereby combining sharply impaired physical and mental faculties with a vehicle capable of great force and speed, reasonably may be held to exhibit a conscious disregard of the safety of others.” Taylor, at 896. The purpose of punitive damages is not only to punish for your actions, but also to deter any future like conduct. Taylor, at 897.

A party may plead and support a claim for punitive damages, where an individual being drunk was the proximate cause of the accident and the act of driving while intoxicated was an aggravating circumstance. If you proceed with such a claim, make sure that your attorney knows as much.

By Allegiance Law, California
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jason Lundberg
I primarily represent clients in personal injury matters and employment law and California Labor Code violations. I take pleasure in helping my clients maneuver through, what sometimes could be considered, a confusing and overwhelming legal system.

Over the course of my career, I achieved results for my clients through negotiated settlements, as well as taking matters all the way to jury trials. Every situation is different, be it a car accident or employment harassment, and a different perspective is applied to each case to determine what the best course of action could be. However, either way, I am equally comfortable discussing your matter with an opposing adjuster at an insurance company or in front of a judge and a jury.

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Disclaimer: Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication at the time it was written. It is not intended to provide legal advice or suggest a guaranteed outcome as individual situations will differ and the law may have changed since publication. Readers considering legal action should consult with an experienced lawyer to understand current laws they may affect a case. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

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