Punitive Damages for a Drunk Driving Accident in Florida

In most Jacksonville personal injury cases, a plaintiff is limited to compensatory damages. However, in drunk driving cases, punitive damages may be requested. The issue of punitive damages is distinct from compensatory damages, and often the trial will be split into phases, so that this issue can be considered separately by the court. A recent Florida appellate case arose when the plaintiff was rear-ended by one of the defendants. The defendant driver was drunk at the time of the collision. The plaintiff sued both him and his employer for negligence. He asked for punitive damages against the driver because he was intoxicated when the crash happened.

Prior to trial, the employer stipulated that its driver was liable for causing the crash and that it was vicariously liable. It also agreed that if the jury awarded the plaintiff compensatory damages, the plaintiff would also be entitled to punitive damages. It moved to bifurcate the trial to exclude evidence that the driver was drunk while the jury determined whether to award compensatory damages. The trial was bifurcated, but the court didn’t exclude proof of intoxication while compensatory damages were being considered.

The plaintiff talked about the defendant driver’s intoxication upon opening and closing. He also submitted evidence to that effect. However, he also told the jury this information wasn’t relevant to deciding compensatory damages. The lower court instructed the jury that the defendant driver was impaired by alcohol and revealed to them his blood alcohol level, which was far higher than the legal limit.

The plaintiff presented medical experts. The defendants sought to poke holes in the experts’ credibility regarding relationship to counsel.

The plaintiff was awarded more than 2.5 million in compensatory damages. The lower court also submitted the question of punitive damages to the jury, in spite of the defendants’ concession. The jury decided the plaintiff was owed punitive damages. It only awarded the plaintiff $15,000 in punitive damages.

On appeal, the defendants claimed there was an error in the lower court’s decision to permit evidence to be introduced regarding the driver’s intoxication. They also argued that it was a mistake not to let them question the experts on their friendship with the plaintiff’s counsel.

The appellate court explained in an auto accident case, when a defendant admits its liability, evidence of the defendant’s sobriety is prejudicial and irrelevant. When a defendant admits liability or damages, they are removed as issues. The appellate court found that it was an abuse of discretion to allow intoxication evidence in the compensatory phase of a bifurcated trial, when both punitive damages and liability were conceded by the defendant. In this case, the plaintiff had placed intoxication in front of the jury while also explaining they should ignore that evidence.

The lower court found that it was in error to permit presentation of intoxication and sent the case back for a new trial.

The appellate court further found that the lower court should have allowed answers given by the plaintiffs’ expert during deposition and the plaintiffs’ delay in designating experts disadvantaged the defense. Similarly, the defendant should have been able to ask about the relationship between plaintiff’s counsel and the doctor.

If you were injured in a car accident caused by someone else in Jacksonville, you should consult experienced attorney Kevin Cobbin. Our firm represents people throughout Duval County and the surrounding areas. Call him at (904) 357-8448 or complete our online form.

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