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Drunk Drivers Need Good Attorneys: The Real Cost Of Defending Yourself In A Civil Case In Tallahassee

Drunk driving accidents result in some of the highest jury awards; juries tend to give the benefit of the doubt to victims of drunk driving accidents. In Florida drunk driving cases, juries can also award punitive damages, which are monetary awards and are designed to punish the drunk driver, and deter other people from driving drunk.

When a plaintiff seeks punitive damages, such as in a drunk driving case, the plaintiff’s attorney is allowed to make arguments he or she wouldn’t be allowed to make if punitive damages were not in play. For instance, the plaintiff’s attorney can argue to the jury that the jury’s verdict will send a message to the community and deter future drunk driving. The personal injury attorney can also argue that the verdict will deter the defendant from future drunk driving. These are powerful arguments that are not allowed in typical negligence cases.

Most drunk driving cases are defended by insurance companies, who hire attorneys to defend the case. The insurance companies also pay the amount of the judgment related to compensatory damages (money intended to make up for the harm caused to the plaintiff), but insurance policies do not cover punitive damages. Therefore, if a jury renders a verdict against a drunk driver for punitive damages, the drunk driver will have to pay those damages regardless of whether the drunk driver was well insured.

As a matter of public policy, insurance carriers are not allowed to write policies which cover punitive damages. Insurance carriers, however, have a fiduciary duty to attempt to settle drunk driving cases within the insurance policy limits when they can. If the carrier fails to do so, the company may be in breach of its fiduciary duty to the insured drunk driver. The breach of this fiduciary duty may result in a bad faith claim against the insurance carrier, wherein the insurance carrier may be required to pay the amount of the punitive damages claim in certain circumstances.

Drunk drivers are wise to hire independent counsel to defend them if they injure someone. If they do, the independent counsel will usually put pressure on the insurance carrier to settle within the policy limits. If the insurance carrier ignores the independent counsel’s advice to settle within the policy limits, the groundwork has been set for the drunk driver to make a bad faith claim in the case of a huge punitive damages award.

Likewise, if a drunk driver has no insurance, he or she would be wise to hire counsel and attempt to settle the case, or defend the case in court. Failure to do so can result in a huge verdict against the drunk driver.

In Florence Merle v. Jennifer Thornton, a drunk driver struck a 29 year old waitress, who sustained soft tissue injuries to her neck and back and treated with a chiropractor for four years. There was no objective evidence of injury. The chiropractor testified that the plaintiff would need chiropractic treatment for the rest of her life at an approximate cost of between $1,600 per year and $3,600 per year.

The drunk driver didn’t hire an attorney and represented herself pro-se, denying fault for the collision. An experienced defense attorney would most likely have admitted fault and defended the case on damages only. The jury awarded $1,246,000, which constituted $246,000 for compensatory damages and $1,000,000 for punitive damages.

The defendant will either pay or has paid the punitive damages, or the debt will remain on her credit for the rest of her life.  Drunk drivers cannot discharge punitive damages debts in bankruptcy, nor can they expect the debt to fall off their credit report in seven years.

As plaintiffs’ attorneys, we have seen the harmful effects of drunk driving on both the drunk drivers and the victims. Drunk drivers can help minimize these effects for both by hiring competent counsel.

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