Can I Get Punitive Damages in a California DUI Lawsuit?

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By Yosi Yahoudai
Founder and Managing Partner

When a person is injured by a drunk driver, they may bring a lawsuit against the driver to seek damages for medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, and other losses related to the car accident. This lawsuit is a civil claim, which is handled separately—and under slightly separate rules—from any criminal charges that have also been filed against the intoxicated driver.

One option for a person injured in a drunk driving accident is to seek punitive damages with the help of a personal injury attorney. While these are not awarded in every case, punitive damages can be a good choice for an injured person.

What Are Punitive Damages?

Also known as “exemplary” damages, punitive damages occupy a different category from other types of damages. Most types of damages are intended to compensate an injured person (or the family of a deceased person) for the harm caused by another’s negligence. This is why damages awards often account for losses like medical bills, lost wages, and in the case of wrongful death, funeral and burial expenses.

Punitive damages, however, are not awarded to compensate the family for their loss. They are awarded in addition to compensatory damages for one or both of two purposes:

  • To punish the liable party for particularly outrageous behavior,
  • To send a message that behavior like the liable party’s behavior will not be tolerated in a civilized society.

As a result, punitive damages may not be awarded in every case. They typically require the injured plaintiff to demonstrate that the defendant’s conduct was particularly egregious.

Can I Seek Punitive Damages in a Drunk Driving Lawsuit?

California Civil Code Section 3294 allows a plaintiff in a personal injury case to seek punitive damages when “the defendant has been guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice.” This language allows an injured person to seek punitive damages even when the defendant’s conduct was not fully intentional, but fell somewhere between intentional and negligent.

Many California courts have agreed that drunk driving falls within this “gray area” and that therefore a person injured by a drunk driver may seek punitive damages. For instance, in Donnelly v. Southern Pac. Co., the California Supreme Court held that a case that falls into this “gray area” between intentional and negligent behavior exists “when a person with no intent to cause harm intentionally performs an act so unreasonable and dangerous that he knows, or should know, it is highly probable that harm will result.”

In Taylor v. Superior Court, the Court held that auto accidents can meet the standard for punitive damages “if performed under circumstances which disclose a conscious disregard of the probable dangerous consequences.” And in Daws v. Superior Court, the California Supreme Court held that drunk driving can meet this standard, if the injured person knew that “probable serious injury” would result from their decision to drink and drive.

If you’ve been injured by a drunk driver in California, don’t hesitate to speak to an experienced personal injury lawyer who can help you navigate the complexities of the legal system, negotiate with insurance companies, and get the compensation you deserve. Contact J&Y Law today for a free consultation.

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About the Author
Yosi Yahoudai is a founder and the managing partner of J&Y. His practice is comprised primarily of cases involving automobile and motorcycle accidents, but he also represents people in premises liability lawsuits, including suits alleging dangerous conditions of public property, third-party criminal conduct, and intentional torts. He also has expertise in cases involving product defects, dog bites, elder abuse, and sexual assault. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of California and is admitted to practice in all California State Courts, and the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. If you have any questions about this article, you can contact Yosi by clicking here.