Virginia Supreme Court OKs punitive damages in car accident

An issue that frequently comes up in any kind of car accident claim is punitive damages. These are money awarded to the plaintiff above and beyond what is needed to compensate for injuries, and are instead intended to punish the defendant and warn others against such conduct.

This can be a complicated area of law, because there are no specific rules about when punitive damages are appropriate, and how much they should be. The Virginia Supreme Court considered this problem earlier in 2014. The court's discussion of how these damages work and should be calculated is helpful in better understanding them.

In Coalson v. Canchola, the defendant had acted poorly. His driver's license had been revoked in 1996 for DUI. On the date of the accident, he had multiple drinks early in the day with his girlfriend. He was then called by a police officer who had found a car that the defendant had earlier reported as missing. His speech was slurred, and the officer advised him not to drive to pick up his car. The defendant drove himself and his girlfriend towards where his car was, but then changed places with her near where he was meeting with the police officer. After getting to his car, and again being told not to drive, he and his girlfriend left (with her driving). The two drove a short distance away, waited for the police officer to leave, and then returned so that the defendant could retrieve his car.

The two then went to a bar, and the defendant consumed seven more drinks before leaving to return to his hotel. As he approached the intersection to turn into the hotel's parking lot, he took a call on his cell phone. He was on the phone when he turned in front of the plaintiffs and was struck, causing injuries to both. He fled the scene into the hotel parking lot and asked his girlfriend to lie for him about his driving the car at the time of the accident.

The jury awarded the driver and his passenger $100,000 each in punitive damages. The trial court ruled this was excessive, but the Virginia Supreme Court disagreed. It ruled that although the ratio of punitive to compensatory damages (those given for property loss, medical expenses, and the like) was high (1:17.86), it was not unreasonable given "the reprehensible and dangerous nature of" the defendant's actions. The question under Virginia law is only whether the award "shocks the court's conscience," and in this case it did not.

There was also the question of whether the award denied the defendant his right to due process under federal law. There, the courts must look at again how reprehensible the defendant's actions were, the disparity between the actual harm and the punitive damages, and how a given case compares to others. The first question is the most important, and considers such things as whether the harm was physical or economic, whether the defendant disregarded others' safety, whether it was an isolated incident, and similar issues. The Virginia Supreme Court again ruled in the plaintiffs' favor, noting the defendant's decision to drive while intoxicated and his repeated habit of doing so in the past. The court also ruled the ratio was not excessive, again because of how egregious the defendant's actions were.

Again, these cases are considered individually, and no overall rules apply. It is important then to have someone one your side to convince the court and the jury why damages are appropriate in your case.