In our post Suing a Bar for Over Serving, we wrote about a Texas case in which a jury awarded billions of dollars to the family of two people killed in an accident caused by a drunk driver. That post focused on the responsibility of the bar where the offending driver got drunk, from a Louisiana law perspective..
But there are all kinds of other issues that crop up in drunk driving accidents, making them different from other auto accident claims. In the Texas case we looked at, a very large component of that award involved punitive damages, which had nothing to do with the actual physical, mental or economic injuries the plaintiffs had. In this post we look at this special type of damages that can be awarded in these cases in Louisiana.
Typical Auto Accident Claims in Louisiana, With a Twist
In every auto accident case in Louisiana there may be claims for, among other things, property damage or loss of use of the claimant’s car; personal injuries, pain and suffering; medical and accident-related expenses; and loss of wages or other economic losses. If you’re in an accident with a drunk driver, you may have all of these same claims plus one more, unique one. If the person who caused the accident was intoxicated, you may have a claim for punitive damages.
What are Punitive Damages?
Punitive damages (often called “exemplary damages” in Louisiana) are designed to punish the defendant and act as a deterrent to certain types of aggravated conduct. Punitive damages are a function of state law and differ from state to state. Some states do not permit them at all; some states have a reputation for liberally awarding them; and many states fall somewhere in between.
Louisiana Law on Punitive Damages
Louisiana law is philosophically reluctant and cautious when it comes to punitive damages. They are generally not recoverable, no matter how egregious the conduct is, except in certain limited situations that are allowed specifically by the state legislature. One of those limited situations involves drinking, driving, and causing an accident. Louisiana’s statutory public policy is that punitive damages can be warranted to discourage, deter and punish the dangerous practice of drunk driving.
The current version of the law allows for punitive damages when the auto accident claimant can prove that his or her injuries were caused “by a wanton or reckless disregard for the rights and safety of others by a defendant whose intoxication while operating a motor vehicle was a cause in fact of the resulting injuries.” Often (but not always), a drunk driving accident that is properly investigated will result in a police or medical professional finding that the defendant was intoxicated.
But, Are Punitive Damages Covered by Insurance?
If you are injured by a drunk driver and the driver had auto liability insurance as is legally required, one of the first questions your attorney will need to answer is whether or not the insurance policy provides coverage for punitive damages. Here again, different states take different legal approaches. Some states don’t allow a person to buy insurance against punitive damages, because those damages are supposed to be a powerful deterrent to certain types of aggravated conduct. If you can buy insurance to protect you, these states believe, the deterrent threat of facing financial ruin from a punitive damages claim goes away. Conversely, many states do allow insurance policies to cover these damages and allow a policyholder to purchase such coverage. These states do not interfere with the contractual right that a policyholder and an insurer have to agree to such coverage, but they often also permit the insurer to exclude coverage for punitive damages as part of the standard insurance contract. The insurance company may do this by defining the terms “damage” or “loss” to exclude punitive damages, or it may add a specific exclusion to the policy prohibiting coverage for these damages. Getting an early handle on the policy language and the state law that applies to it is critical.
In Louisiana, punitive damages can be insurable but a properly worded policy exclusion of such coverage will also be enforced.
Financial Risk to Drunk Driver
Keep in mind that even if punitive damages aren’t covered by the drunk driver’s insurance policy, they can still be recoverable individually against the driver and potentially collected from the driver’s other assets. Drunk driving is a dangerous scourge found at all levels of society, and a driver foolish enough to drive while intoxicated and cause an accident could be looking at an unpredictable, serious threat of financial loss that goes well beyond the actual compensation the accident victim would receive in a “sober” accident. Not only is the size of the award liable to be substantially higher, but a big chunk of it—the punitive damages component—may not be covered by any insurance at all.
In our next post we’ll look at some of the special types of evidence and trial issues that we’ve seen in drunk driving accident cases that we’ve handled.
Injured by a Drunk Driver? Do You Have a Case?
The particular facts of your case or your issue are always the most important variable. Scandurro & Layrisson has successfully taken cases to trial against drunk drivers and has also represented bar owners and operators. We are experienced in the legal, insurance and technical issues these cases present. Feel free to contact us if you have any questions about Louisiana punitive damages law, drunk driving accidents or insurance coverage issues relating to either.