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DUI: Compensatory or Punitive Damages? (PA)

June 13, 2019

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<p style="text-align: justify;">The Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas, Lawrence County, recently addressed whether individuals who cause damages as a result of driving while intoxicated are automatically liable for punitive damages.  In <em><a href="https://www.wcmlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Tornabene-v.-Crivelli.pdf">Tornabene v. Crivelli</a></em>, Defendant Crivelli operated a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol when he struck Plaintiff’s vehicle causing significant injuries to the Plaintiff.  Plaintiff sued the Defendant seeking, <em>inter alia</em>, punitive damages.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Under Pennsylvania law, "punitive damages may be awarded for conduct that is outrageous, because of the defendant's evil motive or his reckless indifference to the rights of others." To support a claim for punitive damages, the plaintiff must show that the defendant had a subjective appreciation of the risk of harm to which the plaintiff was exposed and that the defendant acted, or failed to act, in conscious disregard of that risk.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">In <em>Tornabene</em>, the court found there was no evidence that the Defendant had a subjective appreciation of the risk of his actions. Specifically, Plaintiff's complaint lacked any specific details of Defendant’s state of mind at the time of the crash, or that in his state he consciously disregarded the risk of driving while intoxicated.  Additionally, there was no evidence of how Defendant's inebriation affected his driving.  Further, there were no details about the manner in which Defendant operated his vehicle such as: his estimated rate of speed in relation to other traffic; his use/nonuse of turn signals as he changed lanes; any near collisions with other drivers; any use of a cell phone while behind the wheel; or any other distractions or decisions that would have impeded his safe operation of the vehicle.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Further, the Court laid out certain criteria that could have been included to bolster the punitive damages claim: whether Defendant consumed alcoholic beverages while behind the wheel or prior to entering the vehicle, and how many; whether Defendant manifested signs of intoxication at the incident scene (such as slurred speech, bloodshot eyes or an unsteady gait); whether any tests were performed by law enforcement and the results, if any, such as blood alcohol concentration (BAC) or field sobriety tests; or whether Defendant was criminally cited for any alcohol consumption.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Although arguments were made that driving while intoxicated necessarily indicates a conscious disregard such that punitive damages should apply, based on this case, it appears that some Pennsylvania courts may not agree with this argument.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Thank you to Malik Pickett for his contribution to this post.  Please email <a href="mailto:chayes@wcmlaw.com">Colleen E. Hayes</a> with any questions.</p>

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