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Drunk drivers in Virginia may pay punitive damages

Accidents happen. People can often be forgiving if only they can be “made whole” with medical expenses and damaged property paid for, lost paychecks reimbursed and compensation for the pain and suffering that can significantly degrade their quality of life.

Sometimes, though, some punishment needs to be part of the picture. Because Virginia recognizes that some behavior is simply intolerable, injured people can seek punitive damages as well as compensatory damages.

What are punitive damages?

Punitive damages are specifically meant to punish the driver for their behavior, but seeking punitive damages isn’t only about revenge. The Commonwealth of Virginia and people injured by drunk drivers typically share the same goal of keeping the public safe and want to pursue it in the name of the public interest.

Punitive damages may serve as a powerful reminder for the driver and the public to drive sober. With awards possibly reaching $350,000, the entire community is put on notice that drunk driving may permanently derail your financial future. The hope is that the message will hang over the head of everyone getting behind the wheel while intoxicated.

Getting awarded punitive damages is not easy

Many of the drunk-driving accidents reported on the evening news might sound like open-and-shut cases for maximum punitive damages. But Virginia law sets a high bar for anyone seeking such an award in court. Legal counsel that knows how to speak to juries and judges about punitive damages are essential.

For example, you must show the driver knew or should have known they were too drunk to drive, and that their intoxication directly caused the accident. Commonly, neither of these facts are simple to establish.

Also, their blood-alcohol level had to be above a certain level, but a lot can go wrong in court when trying to show these levels were reliably measured. It's not always as clear as it sounds.

Without unquestionable blood-alcohol evidence, testimony from bystanders or police about the driver’s condition or demeanor might be used as a substitute. In this case, it helps if the driver's own injuries were not so severe that the driver's behavior and demeanor couldn't be judged.

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