I’m tired of people referring to drunk driving accidents as “accidents.” They are not accidents. They are intentional and selfish acts by someone who does not care about you or your family. Drunk drivers are no better than someone who stands in a crowded mall with a loaded gun, who pulls the trigger and shoots into the air hoping he doesn’t hit anyone. These social ills our lives and our children’s lives in danger.
While our criminal law system is seemingly designed to protect the public from drunk drivers, it seems like it is becoming more like a mill, with State Attorneys handling hundreds of cases at a time and trying to clear files from their desk. Our system encourages plea deals, and judges are increasingly trying to clear their trial dockets. But what does this mean for victims? Victim’s rights are at a tug-o’-war with the proverbial Constitutional freedom of a criminal defendant’s innocence until proven guilty. However, in cases against drunk drivers, victims are empowered with civil rights to stand up against drunk drivers and fight back.
How does a slap-on-the-wrist plea deal in the criminal proceeding discourage the drunk driver from drinking and driving again? It doesn’t. This is one major reason why, in Florida and many other states, victims of drunk driving accidents are entitled to a special damage award that most victims of negligence-type cases are not: Punitive Damages. Punitive damages allow a jury to punish drunk drivers, aside from compensating victims for medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering. In criminal proceedings, victims are generally entitled to make a claim for damages, but this remuneration is far less than most victims find just. It only provides for actual damages, i.e. medical bills and lost wages. What about pain and suffering? How do we discourage drunk drivers from becoming repeat offenders? The answer is simple: Punitive Damages.
The Florida Supreme Court in Ingram v. Pettit, 340 So.2d 922, 925 (Fla. 1976) said, “an award of punitive damages is a suitable corollary to those criminal laws designed to discourage this reckless disregard for the public safety.” When an individual drives a motor vehicle, he or she knows it is a dangerous act that can hurt or kill someone if they are not careful. Similarly, when an individual drinks to the point of intoxication, on their own volition, and gets behind the wheel of a motor vehicle, they know that the risk of injury to another is far greater, as they have less control over the dangerous vehicle. When a legally intoxicated individual gets behind a motor vehicle, this is no different than shooting a gun into a crowded mall and hoping you don’t hit anybody.
If you or someone you know is a victim of a drunk driving accident, you should find out about your rights. There is a clear balance between being litigious versus protecting the public from a drunk driver. We want to punish drunk drivers from putting our lives in danger. A slap-on-the-wrist plea deal will not teach the drunk driver a lesson. Be empowered with the knowledge that you can make a difference in our society. You can make a point that it is not ok to drink and drive. You can stand up for yourself and for your community and punish drunk drivers so they stop putting our lives in danger.
Copyright 2004 Jason Turchin, Esq. Do not reprint without express written permission.