We handle between 10-15 cases at any given time involving people hurt by drunk drivers and one of the frequent questions we hear relates to punitive damages and how multiple convictions can affect the outcome. As we have discussed in our article on how to prosecute car accidents caused by drunk drivers in Georgia, when an injury is caused by a drunk driver, Georgia law allows us to seek punitive or “punishment” damages against the driver and their insurance company. There are some situations where certain insurance companies do not provide coverage for punitive damages, but all of the front line insurers including Allstate, State Farm, Progressive, Liberty Mutual and USAA are obligated on their liability policies to pay for punitives against their insured.
Once you know that there is coverage for punitive damages, the key issue is whether the drunk driver has other DUIs, either before or after the crash. There is no publicaly available central database of crimes to search on the web, although county by county, you can find some. As a result you begin your search with a private investigator going to the City and County records for the places where the drunk driver has lived. Sometimes, you can get the prosecuting solicitor to tell you about other places to look.
Why does it matter if the drunk driver had prior or subsequent DUI tickets? Because a jury might understand that it is human to err and mistakes happen. If you have a low degree injury and this is the persons only DUI and they are apologetic, then the punitive damages award may be no more than $10,000.00.
The shoe is on the other foot if the Drunk driver who hit you has prior DUIs or subsequent ones. Why? Think about the case being presented to the jury. The drunk driver’s lawyer will want to keep the jury from getting angry, because an angry jury awards large numbers. It is very hard to be a two time offender and still have the jury believe it was just a mistake. For every conviction jurors will believe there were ten other times the driver was wasted and drove home.
The challenge often becomes proving the other DUIs. For example in a case we are handling, the drunk driver was underage, rolled the pickup truck and fled the scene. He pled guilty but because he is a minor, the records of the DUI are not available to the public. As a result, we drafted a motion under OCGA §15-11-79 to inspect and copy the DUI records to prove the guilty plea.
Although it can be difficult to track the prior and post DUIs down, it is worth the effort. Those facts will make the difference between a case that may settle for three times the medical bills and one that can settle for 4 times.