Drunk Driving Accidents: Civil and Criminal Consequences
If being pulled over for intoxicated driving is an emotional rollercoaster, being involved in a car accident while intoxicated is an emotional train wreck. You’ll not only have to grapple with the fear of possible criminal charges, but you’ll also likely be held accountable in the civil courts for your actions when crash victims are injured or killed.
You’re probably already aware that in these situations, you’ll likely be arrested and charged with a DWI. Penalties for a DWI are bad enough. First-time offenders may face up to $2,000 in fines, license suspension, or up to 180 days in jail. However, if you’ve been involved in a drunk driving accident, you may be in for more punishment than a DWI charge.
Penalties for a criminal charge provide retribution for wrongdoing, but they often don’t provide restitution for injured victims. For example, if a person is sentenced to jail, the judge in the criminal case cannot impose a restitution order. As a result, you may have to face a civil lawsuit on top of your criminal case. When a civil lawsuit is involved, you should be very worried about having to pay punitive damages out of your own pocket.
What Are Punitive Damages?
Because drunk driving clearly meets the standard for “gross negligence,” there are ultimately three types of potential damages in a civil drunk driving case: (1) economic damages, (2) non-economic damages, and (3) punitive damages.
Economic and non-economic damages are meant to provide the car accident victim with restitution for physical and non-physical losses. Economic damages include compensation for medical bills, lost earning capacity, and property damage. Non-economic damages are meant to compensate for the loss of things that aren’t easily quantifiable, such as pain and suffering, mental anguish, disfigurement, physical impairment, and loss of consortium.
Punitive damages, on the other hand, are not designed to merely compensate for a loss. Rather, punitive damages exist purely to punish a wrongdoer and deter others from engaging in similar conduct. Having to pay punitive damages on top of any fines resulting from a DWI charge can be financially taxing for any individual.
Does Car Insurance Cover Punitive Damages?
If you’ve made the mistake of blissfully assuming your insurance will cover punitive damages, you’ve likely assumed incorrectly. The State of Texas has a long-standing tradition of protecting the freedom to contract by enforcing the terms of contractual agreements (especially insurance policies) as long as the agreement doesn’t violate public policy.
Northwestern National Cas. Co. v. McNulty
For over 50 years, Texas courts have relied on the decision in Northwestern National Cas. Co. v. McNulty as a basis for holding that punitive damages should be excluded from insurance coverage as a matter of public policy. A drunk driver had seriously injured another motorist and was looking to secure coverage from his insurance company for punitive damages.
The court reasoned that “were a person is able to insure himself against punishment he gains a freedom of misconduct inconsistent with the establishment of sanctions against such misconduct.” In other words, being able to insure against punishment defeats the purpose of punishment itself.
Fairfield Insurance Co. v. Stephens Martin Paving, LP
In 2008, the Texas Supreme Court addressed whether punitive damages were insurable for the first time. The case involved a spouse who claimed that a paving company’s negligence caused her husband’s death when a paving machine rolled over him.
In this case, the Supreme Court held that Texas public policy does not prohibit insurance coverage for punitive damages in workers’ compensation cases. However, in the court’s explanation of the decision, it was reiterated that in situations involving drunk drivers or egregious actions, coverage for punitive damages would be deemed inappropriate. Thus, punitive damages can seriously cripple an individual’s financial health, especially given how much could potentially be awarded to the plaintiff.
How Much Can Be Awarded for Punitive Damages in Texas?
Punitive damages will vary depending on the circumstances surrounding the accident and the severity of the crash itself. The State of Texas does cap punitive damages at the greater of $200,000 or double the amount of economic damages plus non-economic damages (up to $750,000).
When it comes to drunk driving, there is an exception to the punitive damages cap that you need to be aware of. If you are found guilty of intoxication assault or manslaughter, there are no caps on punitive damages, even when the felony was not committed knowingly or intentionally.
Therefore, it’s very likely the cap may not apply in your case.
Can an Injured Victim File a Civil Lawsuit if I’ve Already Been Convicted?
If you’ve been convicted of a DWI and you end up serving jail time, an injured accident victim can still file a civil suit against you (you might even be served while sitting in jail). It’s also important to note that the lack of a criminal conviction does not necessarily mean you will win a civil lawsuit, as different burdens of proof are used in civil courts than in criminal courts.
About the Author
Travis Patterson is a local Fort Worth Car Accident Attorney. Travis is a founder of neighboring personal injury law firm, Patterson Law Group. Travis has dedicated his life’s work to helping injured victims recover after accidents. He contributed this article for educational purposes only. This content should not be construed as legal advice, nor does it create an attorney-client relationship whatsoever between the reader and Mr. Patterson or his law firm.
Also published on Medium.