Punitive Damages for Drunk Drivers in Maryland

There is a bill in the Maryland General Assembly that would allow 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 vehement 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 drunk drivers punitive damagesLin (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 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 fewer 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 actual 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.

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