Punitive Damages May Be Possible If You Are Injured By A Drunk Driver

It seems like no matter how public service announcements are aired or how tough are laws are, there will always be Wisconsin drivers who take their chances behind the wheel after drinking. Wisconsin drunk driving accidents kill nearly 200 people a year and injure nearly 2,900, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT).

Meanwhile, an estimated 24,000 people are convicted of drunk-driving offenses annually — despite the embarrassment, the cost, and the devastation of impacted families and communities. That's only the impaired drivers who are caught. A survey for the federal Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System found that while 1.9 percent of drivers in the U.S. admitted to getting behind the wheel after drinking too much, 3.1 percent said the same in Wisconsin. That puts Wisconsin at nearly 65 percent higher risk than the national average for self-reported drunk driving.

It's a serious problem, and the attorneys at Lein Law Offices fight vigorously for the rights of drunk driving accident victims in Wisconsin. Although overall drunk driving crashes have been falling in recent years, alcohol remains the No. 1 driver-contributing factor in fatal Wisconsin traffic crashes. On average, one person is killed or injured in an impaired-driving accident every three hours in this state.

Why Drunk Driving Is So Dangerous

Driving is a complex function that requires all your faculties. You need to be attentive, alert and ready to respond to changing road conditions at a moment's notice. Alcohol (and drugs — illicit or prescribed) impairs one's ability to do any of those things.

As noted by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, alcohol is a depressant that slows the central nervous system, delaying normal brain function, including information-processing and psychomotor skills like hand-eye coordination. One's concentration, coordination, visual acuity, comprehension and reaction time are all affected.

Drugs pose a similar threat to motor skills, judgment, memory and reaction time, though the exact impact can vary depending on the substance.

Drivers under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs (and increasingly, it is some sort of combination) have a reduced ability to recognize and understand the situation in front of them. Impairment results in crashes that could have been avoided had the driver's reaction time been normal. Driving drunk is also associated with crashes resulting from scenarios that might never have otherwise occurred, such as wrong-way highway crashes.

Why These Aren't "Accidents"

Although we've all heard our share of statements by drunk driving defendants at criminal sentencing hearings wishing they could take it back, saying things like they "never meant for this to happen," the reality of it is this: These aren't "accidents." Drunk driving is a criminal offense, and such crashes are entirely preventable. This is one of the reasons punitive damages are often allowed in drunk driving crash cases and not in other types of damage claims.

Punitive damages, outlined in Wis. Stat. Ann. § 895.043, are only allowed for cases wherein the plaintiff can show the defendant acted with malice or intentional disregard for the plaintiff's rights.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court in the drunk driving companion cases of Strenke v. Hogner and Wischer v. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries America Inc. ruled punitive damages can be allowed if plaintiff can show the conduct was a deliberate act, sufficiently aggravated. The court declined to set a bright-line rule allowing that all drunk driving cases amounted to intentional disregard for plaintiff's rights, deciding instead that it should be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Drunk driving is also considered a form of negligence per se, meaning that as a violation of statute (Wis. Stat. Ann. § 346.63), it represents in and of itself a breach of reasonable care one driver owes to other vehicle occupants. But proving the defendant driver in your case was drunk or impaired in and of itself isn't enough to establish liability. You'll still need to show the defendant caused the crash that resulted in your injuries.

A driver can be prosecuted in the criminal justice system for a DUI accident and additionally face accountability in the civil system. The two processes are separate and serve different purposes.

Legal Guidance After Drunk Driving Collisions

The criminal prosecution of a drunk driver is intended to punish that person for violation of state statute. Civil litigation is a means by which the people injured or affected by negligent conduct can seek financial compensation.

Those injured in a Wisconsin DUI are entitled to seek compensation from the negligent driver for things like medical bills, lost wages, ongoing therapy costs, pain and suffering, and mental anguish. In wrongful death cases, funeral expenses and other losses may also be covered.

WisDOT estimates for average economic losses from DUI crashes include:

  • Death — $1.5 million
  • Incapacitating injury — $88,5000
  • Non-incapacitating injury — $25,600
  • Possible injury — $21,000
  • Property Damage — $4,200

Primarily, this will be paid by the auto insurer of the at-fault driver. If the driver doesn't have insurance or enough to cover your losses, you can obtain coverage through your own uninsured/underinsured motorist carrier — but only after you have proven the defendant's liability.

Dram shop and social host laws in the state generally prohibit liability of third parties who served alcohol to the driver unless the driver was under the legal drinking age of 21. Generally, under those circumstances, Wis. Stat. Ann. § 125.035 allows it.

It's important if you were involved in a Winter car accident or Sawyer County traffic accident involving a drunk driver that you speak to an injury attorney first before signing any waivers or releases from the driver's insurer or making other statements or claims.

Enlist Our Help If Injured By A Drunk Driver

To schedule a free consultation with an experienced Sawyer County car accident attorney, call 715-403-5045 or use our online contact form. In-home and hospital visits are available. Call us toll-free at 1-877-712-4023.