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Judge and Gavel
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  • Richard L. Duquette

Suing a Drunk Driver

Recently I settled what initially looked like a small case for a triathlete/cyclist. We were fortunate to receive the defendant's full insurance policy limits. I believe this was because the defendant was convicted of drunk driving prior to my handling the civil case. I wanted to share my perception as to why the insurance company paid the full policy limits in this case. I think the insurance company ultimately realized that if they continued to litigate, they were exposing their insured to punitive damages and attorney's fees beyond the policy limits. Punitive damages are designed to punish and deter despicable and malicious conduct. For example, the defendant in our case drove with a .20 blood alcohol limit (that's the equivalent of 10 beers circulating in his system) when his car slammed into my client's vehicle.

Normally punitive damages and attorney's fees are not applicable in an ordinary auto or bicycle personal injury case. In light of the defendant's conduct, and my deposition questioning exposing that he knew the effects each beer had on his behavior and his admission to the escalating effects of intoxication, I think his lawyer realized how angry a jury would react to this type of conduct. The punitive damage award would easily influence the overall value of the underlying general damages that normally flow from a garden variety auto/cyclist case. This became even more apparent, after I discovered during his deposition, that he had been warned years before of the effects of alcohol while in a 3-month alcohol program after sustaining a prior DUI conviction. This fact helped prove he knowingly choose to take a chance driving while appreciating the risks of driving drunk.

Not all drinking rises to the level of a punitive damage case, even in an accident. However, in this particular case, the behavior was so outrageous that it warranted punitive damages. So in this soft tissue case, (which insurance companies ordinarily offer lowball settlements to injured cyclist/athletes, even when active lifestyles are affected) insurance paid the full policy limits of $15,000.

So, the moral of the story is that each personal injury case is unique, and justice can be obtained from an insurance company when they are placed in the punitive damage/attorney fees "legal crosshairs". This is true especially while representing injured cyclists/athletes; who generally make excellent witnesses and testify very well in court as deserving claimants.

'Till next time, ride safe.


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