• North Carolina Drunk Drivers and Punitive Damages
  • April 25, 2014 | Author: Joseph A. Miller
  • Law Firm: Joe Miller Law, Ltd. - Norfolk Office
  • Punitive Damages Cap—Drunk Driving Cases Exempt. In North Carolina, which has a general punitive damages cap of $250,000.00, or 3 times the compensatory damages, whichever is greater, the legislature wisely exempted drunk driving defendants from benefiting from this punitive damages limit. In other words, in drunk driving cases, there is no statutory limit on punitive damages in North Carolina.

    Some issues are harder. That being said, many issues relating to punitive damages in a drunk driving case are harder to prove in North Carolina than in some other states. First, there is no presumptive Blood Alcohol (BAC) level that entitles a litigant to claim punitive damages against an impaired defendant. In addition, evidence of alcohol impairment alone, even if it is above the legal limit, is typically not enough to enable the jury to consider a punitive damages claim. In North Carolina, the defendant has to be shown to have acted “willfully and wantonly”, meaning he or she exhibited a “conscious and intentional disregard of, and indifference to the rights and safety of others.” (N.C.P.I. Civil Instruction 106.96). Moreover, this has to be proven by clear and convincing evidence, as opposed to a preponderance of the evidence.

    DUI History of Defendant Can Prove Critical. In addition, even if the jury should agree to award punitive damages, there is a long laundry list that limits what the jury can consider in determining the amount. (See N.C.G.S.1D-35). But really, the bottom line in North Carolina in drunk driving cases in terms of the punitive damages is that one usually needs to take a hard look at the defendant’s DUI history, if any, that preceded the accident. This is because many of the factors that the jury is allowed to consider under North Carolina punitive damage law deal with themes that make this conduct quite relevant. For instance, the jury is allowed to consider past conduct by the defendant, the reprehensibility of the defendant’s motives and conduct, and the defendant’s awareness of the probable consequences of [his or her] conduct. The jury is instructed at trial how all these items are appropriate.

    One can imagine that if the defendant has had several prior DUI convictions, it is very hard for such a person to argue that he or she was unaware of the consequences of getting drunk and driving. This defendant has clearly been down that road before - and has not learned the lesson. That allows the trial lawyer to argue that it is the jury’s job to now teach the defendant that lesson, by way of a huge award of damages to you.

    Video the Defendant’s Behavior. A great piece of advice in any DUI case, especially in North Carolina where the BAC is insufficient alone to get punitive damages - video the defendant’s drunk behavior. Remember that in North Carolina, you must have other evidence of intoxication of the defendant besides the BAC in order to obtain the right to claim punitive damages.

    These days, it has become easier, because most people have smart cell phones that are capable of shooting video. A video of a drunk driver, taken at the scene, talking to you or others with slurred speech or a staggering walk, or failing his feeble attempt to perform the functions of the sobriety test, can be quite convincing evidence of intoxication to a jury. Even a mere photo of the defendant, glassy-eyed or practically passed out at the scene, may be sufficient to make the insurance adjuster pay a handsome sum to settle your DUI case and think twice about making you litigate the matter in Court.

    Police officers also often have video cameras mounted on their vehicles which automatically video stops which may well have been utilized on the defendant. If the defendant’s arrest and sobriety test was, in fact, videotaped by the officer, your attorney should certainly attain a copy.