Even with the COVID crisis taking drivers off the roads in 2020, Virginia suffered more traffic deaths for alcohol-related crashes in 2020 than in 2019. As of December 8, 2020, Virginia’s 253 alcohol-related fatalities had already surpassed the 249 deaths for the entirety of 2019. These deaths constitute 30% of the roadway fatalities in the Commonwealth. Nationwide, the numbers paint a grim picture; 28 people die in drunk driving crashes every day in the U.S., or one every 51 minutes.
Consideration of alcohol-related traffic injuries makes the picture even more sad. Preliminary data shows that alcohol-related driving led to more than 3,500 injuries in Virginia in 2020.
Virginia’s civil justice system is based on the principle that people should take responsibility for their mistakes. For example, if a driver hurts someone because they didn’t look carefully before entering a roadway, our system holds them responsible for the damage they cause. The purpose is not to punish the negligent driver, but to make up the injury to the injured and innocent driver. These are called “compensatory damages,” because they are designed to compensate the injured driver for their loss.
With drunk driving however, Virginia law authorizes a civil jury to punish a drunk driver who hurts someone else by assessing “punitive damages” to the drunk driver. This is in addition to any criminal punishment that the criminal justice system may impose. Punitive damages exist to punish the drunk driver and also to send a signal to the community that drunk driving will not be tolerated.
Unfortunately, Virginia caps all punitive damages awards at $350,000. Looking at the death and injury statistics for 2019 and 2020, many might conclude that $350,000 comes nowhere close to being a fair punishment from the perspective of a family mourning the death of a loved one, or to someone catastrophically injured by a drunk driver.
Driver negligence is a common occurrence – all drivers make mistakes. But drunk driving is different. A drunk driver chooses to drink and then get behind the wheel and drive. In those circumstances where a choice to drive and endanger the community is involved, punitive damages are justified, even if a cap may not be. Nevertheless, punitive damages remain a significant tool in the fight against drunk driving.
If you or a loved one has been hurt due to the negligence of a drunk driver, you may be eligible for compensation. Call Allen & Allen today for a free consultation, at 866-388-1307.