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Car Accident Lawyer- Punitive Damages Against a Drunk Driver

If you have been injured by a drunk driver, you may be entitled to punitive damages. Punitive damages are damages above your medical bills, loss of income, loss of earning capacity, pain and suffering, etc. Punitive damages are meant to punish certain behavior and deter future behavior, like drunk driving.

The law regarding punitive damages makes it clear that certain language must be included in the pleadings. If not you may be subject to a motion to strike.

“The court may, upon a motion made pursuant to § 435, or at any time in its discretion, and upon terms it deems proper: (a) Strike out any irrelevant, false, or improper matter inserted in any pleading.” (Code of Civ. Proc. § 436). “Irrelevant matter” includes a “demand for judgment requesting relief not supported by allegations of the complaint.” Code of Civ. Proc. § 431.10, subs. (B)(3), (C). “The grounds for a motion to strike shall appear on the face of the challenged pleading or from any matter of which the court is required to take judicial notice.” (Code of Civ. Proc. § 437 (a)).

“In order to survive a motion to strike an allegation of punitive damages, the ultimate facts showing an entitlement to such relief must be pled by a plaintiff. In passing on the correctness of a ruling on a motion to strike, judges read allegations of a pleading subject to a motion to strike as a whole, all parts in their context, and assume their truth. In ruling on a motion to strike, courts do not read allegations in isolation.” Clauses v. Superior Court (1998) 67 Cal.App.4th 1253, 1255. If a statement in a complaint that is relevant to plaintiff’s claim for negligence, then the motion to strike will not be granted to that paragraph. Clements v. T.R. Bechtel Co. (1954) 43 Cal.2d 227, 242.

“In an action for the breach of an obligation not arising from contract, where it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant has been guilty of oppression, fraud or malice, the plaintiff, in addition to the actual damages, may recover damages for the sake of example and by way of punishing the defendant.” Civ. Code §3294(a). “Malice means conduct which is intended by the defendant to cause injury to the plaintiff or despicable conduct which is carried on by the defendant with a willful and conscious disregard of the rights or safety of others.” Civ. Code § 3294(c)(1).

The seminal case on whether a party can recover punitive damages from a drunk driver is discussesd in Taylor v. Superior Court (1979) 24 Cal.3d 890. In Taylor, the California Supreme Court addressed the issue of “whether punitive damages are recoverable in a personal injury action brought against an intoxicated driver.” ID at p. 892. The Taylor court concluded, “the act of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated may constitute an act of ‘malice’ under section 3294 if performed under circumstances which disclose a conscious disregard of the probable dangerous consequences.” In distinguishing appropriate cases of punitive damages from merely negligence cases, the court stated that it was “holding only that one who voluntarily commences, and thereafter continues to consume alcoholic beverages to the point of intoxication, knowing from the outset that he must thereafter operate a motor vehicle demonstrates, in the words of Dean Prosser, ‘such a conscious and deliberate disregard of the interests of others that his conduct may be called willful or wanton.’ Although the circumstances in a particular case may disclose similar willful or wanton behavior in other forms, ordinarily, routine negligent or even reckless disobedience of traffic laws would not justify an award of punitive damages.” Id at 899-900.

As the Taylor court indicates, to established malice, a plaintiff must allege “conscious disregard.” Since the decision in Taylor, the legislature has amended the definition of malice in Civil Code section 3924 to limit punitive damages further to “despicable conduct” carried on with “willful and conscious disregard.” State 1987 ch. 1498, § 5, College Hospital Inc. v. Superior Court (1994) 8 Cal.4th 704, 725 [addition of despicable conduct represents a new substantive limitation]. To constitute “descpicable conduct,” there must be facts- like those alleged in Taylor- showing more than a reckless choice to drive made after having consumed alcohol. The facts alleged here are insufficient to state a claim for punitive damages.

If you have been injured by a drunk driver, call Morales Law today for a free consultation (805) 845-5405.