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Car Accidents: Drunk Driving and Punitive Damages

by | Oct 19, 2020 | Firm News

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If you have been involved in an accident with a drunk driver, you may be entitled to an award of punitive damages.  

In Illinois, punitive damages are available in car accident cases if a defendant’s conduct was willful or wanton.  Both the Illinois Supreme Court and legislature define willful and wanton conduct as “a course of action which shows actual or deliberate intent to harm or which, if the course of action is not intentional, shows an utter indifference to or conscious disregard for a person’s own safety or the safety or property of others.”  Illinois courts have held that driving under the influence of alcohol is willful and wanton conduct that will subject a defendant to punitive damages.  For example, inFord v. Herman316 Ill. App. 3d 726 (5th Dist. 2000), the jury awarded an injured plaintiff (Ford) $6 million in punitive damages against the defendant-driver (Herman) who had rear-ended Ford after consuming eight or nine beers.  The Fifth District appellate court then upheld the punitive damage award on appeal, noting that the damages would serve to deter Herman and other members of the public from committing the offense of drunk driving in the future.  

 When determining the appropriate amount of punitive damages, the trial judge will generally instruct the jury to consider three questions: (1) how reprehensible was the nursing home’s conduct, (2) what harm did the home’s conduct cause the resident, and (3) what amount of money is necessary to punish the home and discourage it from committing future wrongful conduct.  When weighing the reprehensibility of a nursing home’s conduct, the judge will instruct the jury to consider: (a) the facts and circumstances of the home’s conduct, (b) the financial vulnerability of the resident, (c) the duration of the misconduct, (d) the frequency of the misconduct, (e) whether the harm was physical as opposed to economic, and (f) whether the home tried to conceal the misconduct.  The jury may also consider other factors when appropriate on a case-by-case basis.

 A defendant-driver’s insurance company will not pay an award of punitive damages on behalf of its insured.  So, the defendant must pay the judgment himself. If the defendant refuses to pay the judgment, a plaintiff can file citation to discover assets.  The citation requires the defendant to answer questions under oath about his assets, and if assets are discovered the plaintiff can obtain a “turnover” order from the court.  This order directs a bank or other financial institution to turn over the defendant’s money to the plaintiff.  A plaintiff can also obtain a garnishment order allowing him to garnish the defendant’s wages to satisfy the judgment.