Punitive damages in Virginia drunk driving personal injury cases

Punitive damages refer to compensation that the courts’ award to punish defendants in personal injury cases and to deter future similar behavior. Punitive damages differ from compensatory damages in that the courts do not intend for them to compensate victims for their losses.

According to the Code of Virginia § 8.01-44.5., the courts will allow a jury to award punitive damages in any action for personal injury or wrongful death that arises from a motor vehicle accident. However, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s actions were malicious or either so willful or wanton as to show a complete disregard for others’ rights and safety.

Intoxicated driving is a clear example of willful and wanton behavior

Per VA law, drunk driving is a clear example of reckless behavior. As such, the courts may readily award punitive damages if the plaintiff can prove the following elements to be true:

  • The defendant’s BAC was 0.15% or higher at the time of the accident that caused the injury
  • When he or she began consuming alcohol, or during the time of consumption, the defendant knew or should have known that he or she would be unable to drive; or
    • When behind the wheel of the vehicle, the defendant knew or should have known that the alcohol-impaired his or her capacity to do so
  • The defendant’s inebriation was the immediate cause of the accident and ensuing injuries or death

If the plaintiff can prove the truth of the above elements, a jury may award punitive damages.

Limitations on the recovery of punitive damages

Per the Code of Virginia § 8.01-38.1., judges presiding over personal injury lawsuits ask that jurors carefully consider all the evidence when determining the applicability and amount of punitive damage awards. Beyond that, jurors have their full discretion to come up with fair awards. However, punitive damages may never exceed $350,000. If jurors, who are not informed of this rule, come up with an amount that is greater than the maximum, the judge will reduce the award accordingly.

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