Punitive Damages for Drunk Drivers in Maryland

There is a bill in the Maryland General Assembly that would authorize punitive damages against drunk drivers who caused “injury or wrongful death while operating a motor vehicle.” Punitive damages would be available against drunk drivers: (1) With a blood alcohol concentration of over .15; or (2) With a blood alcohol concentration of over .08, and was driving on a suspended or revoked license or had entered a plea of nolo contendere or received probation before judgment within the last 5 years.

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce opposes this bill. Why? I really think it is because the Maryland Chamber is run by the true believers who care about some issue far more strongly than furthering the interests of Maryland businesses. That mission includes a strong opposition to anything their gut tells them that Maryland personal injury lawyers might support. Seriously. If Maryland Association for Justice put out a statement that Jeremy Lin should be the focal point of the Knicks’ office even when Carmelo Anthony returns, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce would immediately put out a statement renouncingĀ DUI testLin (citing the fact that Carmelo is from Baltimore or something). It is just silly.

(Minority Report: their opposition makes perfect sense. They are worried about the slippery slope of punitive damages affecting Maryland businesses and they are two steps ahead in the chess match. Personally, I don’t give them that much credit.)

So let me set the Chamber’s mind at ease. Economically, plaintiffs’ attorneys would get no real benefit from punitive damages in drunk driving injury and death cases. Why? Because punitive damages are not covered by insurance. Which means the drunks have to come up with the cash themselves. My firm has collected $0.00 from people individually over the last ten years. Collecting money from people individually is just very difficult. In almost every case, the juice is not worth the squeeze unless the defendant goes by the name John Rockefeller. Lawyers handling traffic collision cases will not see their revenues rise a half of a percent by getting drunks to pony up punitive damages.

So why support punitive damages against drunk drivers on Maryland’s roads who cause car accidents? Well, because I want to keep my family safe. We have made progress against drunk driving in Maryland. People are more aware now. I bet you know less people than you used to that you know or suspect are driving drunk. This is borne out in the statistics. In 2007, there were 24,909 DUI arrests in Maryland and that number is now down to 22,614. (Some people credit the recession for this. Who knows?)

But there are still too many drunks on the road and still too many people dying. Punitive damages against drunk drivers in Maryland who hurt or kill people send another message to people who are making the call whether to have that extra drink or to call a cab. We need to keep finding new and creative ways to send this message and media reports of drunk driving punitive damage awards will do that. Is it going to be a game changer? No. But it will help a little. That “little” means it will save lives, at no real cost. That’s good enough for me.

The other upside to awarding punitive damages for plaintiffs in drunk driving car accident cases is that it gives the victims a little peace of mind. I’m so sick of explaining to clients that their damages are exactly the same getting permanently injured from a drunk driver as they would be if the defendant was a nun with a 30 year accident free history. I’m so sick of giving that speech.

  • Is that a law in MD that no insurance exposure for puni’s? In GA the only way we don’t get coverage for DUI puni’s is if the policy has a puni waiver, which unfortunately more and more insurers and putting in place for quote lower premiums end quote.

    Another twist in GA that you may want to watch out for is that our DUI puni damages cannot attach to a server. I tried like heck in a case to get puni’s on a dram shop case and the case law prohibited it. Just an FYI.

  • Jason Hash

    He’s right. I don’t think that it’s statute, but standard ISO policy in MD and the MAIF policy exclude puni’s. You want to know what’s REALLY messed up? Under Section 2 Liability “Supplemental Payments” bail is covered!

  • ADF

    Punitives are technically insurable in Maryland, but most personal policies do exclude them…I have seen a case where the insurer covered punitives against a drunk tow truck driver that caused a serious accident.

  • In Georgia we can get punitive damages for DUI and hit and run cases but the developing insurancec trend is to exclude punitive damages. Right now, only Geico and certain low end carriers do it. The exclusion creates a dangerous conflict of interest between the insurer and the insured especially if they are using in house defense counsel. On the other hand, it is a little hard to morally explain why the insurance carrier getting punished helps punish the drunk driver. I suppose in the macro analysis the idea is they will scrutinize the DMV records of the insured more closely and refuse to write coverage, thereby increasing the chances the drunk cannot drive at all.

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