Intoxicated Drivers and Punitive Damages In Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia
August 5, 2020
Claims involving intoxicated drivers raise a host of issues and concerns ranging from the effect of the intoxication on coverage to the potential that the intoxication may influence a jury’s findings on liability and damages. One specific concern, however, varies greatly across Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia – whether the driver’s intoxication gives rise to a claim for punitive damages.
Virginia permits the recovery of punitive damages by statute. Section 8.01-44.5 of the Virginia Code explicitly permits the recovery of punitive damages in some circumstances where the driver of the at-fault vehicle was intoxicated. Assuming the at-fault driver did not act with actual malice, the following facts must be present:
• The accident must cause injury or death;
• The at-fault driver must have either a tested blood or breath alcohol level of 0.15, or the driver must have unreasonably refused the test and evidence of his intoxication must be proven by other means (such as police officer or witness testimony);
• The at-fault driver must have been aware that at the time he was drinking alcohol that his ability to operate a motor vehicle was or would be impaired; and
• The at-fault driver’s intoxication was a proximate cause of the accident.
Further, on April 1, 2016 the Governor signed Senate Bill 728, which amends the statute to permit introduction of subsequent conduct of the at-fault driver (such as a subsequent conviction or accident) to permit the jury to assess the magnitude of an award of punitive damages to deter future conduct. In brief, the at-fault driver’s subsequent conduct can increase his exposure to an award of punitive damages.
Since 1992 Maryland has adhered to the “actual malice” standard for punitive damages in all cases (essentially, in a non-intentional tort punitive damages cannot be awarded unless the defendant acted with “evil motive, intent to injure, ill will, or fraud”). Maryland applied this standard in the 1993 case of Komornik v. Sparks to hold that punitive damages may not be awarded in motor vehicle accidents when the defendant is intoxicated, even when the at-fault driver drank alcohol “in an amount he could not recall”, rear-ended a line of vehicles stopped at a red light, and registered a blood alcohol content of 0.19. The at-fault driver in Komornik had three prior convictions or pleas to alcohol-related traffic offenses within the prior eight years, and at the time of the accident, was driving on a license suspended due to an alcohol-related offence. Even then, Maryland’s Court of Appeals noted that the at-fault driver’s conduct did not rise to the level necessary to permit an award of punitive damages.
In the most recent legislation session, Maryland’s Senate passed Bill 302 which would permit the recovery of punitive damages in certain situations where injury was caused by an intoxicated driver. Specifically, punitive damages could be recovered where:
• The accident caused personal injury or death;
• The at-fault driver had either a tested blood or breath alcohol level of 0.15 or the at-fault driver refused to submit to testing and an officer had reasonable grounds to believe the driver was operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated; and
• The at-fault driver in the preceding ten years was convicted, entered a no contest plea, or received probation before judgment for an alcohol-related traffic offense.
Also, the facts supporting a claim for punitive damages must be pled in the complaint, the burden of proof is for clear and convincing evidence, and punitive damages may not be assessed against any vicariously-liable parties or entrustors.
Maryland’s House of Representatives did not pass its version of the bill, so the default rule in Maryland remains Komornik’s ban on punitive damages. This bill, however, will be introduced again.
District of Columbia
Neither the City Council nor the Courts of the District of Columbia, have addressed whether an intoxicated motorist’s negligence can give rise to a claim for punitive damages. However, the Court of Appeals has limited the award of punitive damages to situations where the defendant acted with “wantonness, oppressiveness, maliciousness, recklessness, gross fraud, gross negligence, a spirit of mischief, or criminal indifference to civil obligations”. It is not difficult to imagine a scenario where a driver’s conduct, in terms of the degree of intoxication and the recklessness with which he operated his vehicle, could be characterized as meeting this standard.