Virginia Code Section 8.01-44.5 provides for punitive damages in DUI accident lawsuits when a driver of a vehicle is intoxicated and (1) the driver's blood alcohol content ("BAC") is at or above .15 at the time the driver was operating the vehicle or (2) the driver of the vehicle refuses to take the breathalyzer. This code section is regularly used by personal injury attorneys to establish punitive damages at trial. The Virginia Supreme Court recently ruled in Coalson v. Canchola, 2014 Va. LEXIS 30 (2014) (full opinion) that a 1:17 ratio between compensatory and punitive damages was not excessive under Virginia law and did not offend the driver's due process rights.
In Coalson, supra, the plaintiff's vehicle was struck in the passenger's side door by a drunk driver who was talking on his cell phone. The drunk driver's BAC was almost twice the legal limit at the time of the accident. The plaintiff suffered minor injuries. At the trial of the injury case, a Fairfax jury awarded the plaintiff $5,600.00 in compensatory damages and $100,000.00 in punitive damages. On a motion for remittitur after the verdict, the Fairfax Circuit Court reduced the award of punitive damages to $50,000.00, concluding that the jury award was arbitrary. Additionally, the Circuit Court noted that the other plaintiff in the action (the passenger) was awarded $14,000.00 in compensatory damages and $100,000.00 in punitive damages, and found the significant disparity in compensatory damages necessitated a reduction for the plaintiff. Plaintiff appealed the reduction.
The Coalson Court reinstated the jury's $100,000.00 punitive damage award, holding that the determination of punitive damages "must be based on the facts and circumstances of each case," and the circumstances of this case warranted the award. Coalson, supra, 2014 Va. LEXIS at *10. The facts at trial were that the driver (1) was driving while intoxicated without a license, (2) his license was revoked due to previous DUIs, (3) drove under the influence multiple instances the day of the accident, (4) ignored a police officer's warning not to drive, (5) deceived the officer into thinking that he would not drive and drank even more before driving, (6) fled from the accident scene, and (7) asked his girlfriend to lie under oath about his involvement. Id. The Court stated that the plaintiff's "punitive damages are reasonably related to her actual damages and to the degree of necessary punishment, which in this case is great." Id. at *12. While the 1:17 ratio between compensatory and punitive damages is high, it was not "unreasonably or strikingly out of proportion." Id. Additionally, the Court held that the punitive damage award survived a due process violation claim, even though the ratio "should generally be within single digits to satisfy [the] requirement." Id. at 15.
IMPACT: This case is a big win for plaintiffs and plaintiffs' attorneys in Virginia, especially for DUI accident lawsuits. This holding can be used in a bevy of different ways. First, it can be used as a shield for post-trial motions brought by the defense. Second, and maybe more importantly, it can be used as a sword for negotiations with adjusters and defense counsel to justify a high demand. While it may be unlikely that a settlement will reflect a 1:17 compensatory to punitive damage ratio, this case can be used as leverage for larger settlements in the future.