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Geoff Trachtenberg
Geoff Trachtenberg
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Intoxicated Drivers Can Be Subject to Punitive Damages

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An intoxicated defendant who injures someone is often exposed to punitive damages. Arizona Appellate Courts have unanimously affirmed punitive damage awards against drunk drivers in cases where it is proven that intoxicated driving was a proximate cause of the collision.

An intoxicated defendant who injures someone is often exposed to punitive damages. Arizona Appellate Courts have unanimously affirmed punitive damage awards against drunk drivers in cases where it is proven that intoxicated driving was a proximate cause of the collision. Smith v. Chapman, 115 Ariz. 211, 564 P.2d 900 (1977); Starr v. Campos, 134 Ariz. 254, 256, 655 P.2d 794, 796 (App. 1982); Rustin v. Cook, 143 Ariz. 486, 491, 694 P.2d 316 (1984); Del E. Webb Corp. v. Superior Court, 151. Ariz. 164,170, 726 P.2d 580 (1986); Liberatore v. Thompson, 157 Ariz. 612, 760 P.2d 612 (App. 1988); Ball v. Prentice, 162 Ariz. 150, 153, 791 P.2d 628, 631 (1989); Olson v. Walker, 162 Ariz. 174, 781 P.2d 1051 (App. 1989); Haralson v. Fisher Surveying, Inc., 201 Ariz. 1, 31 P.3d 114 (2001).

In Starr v. Campos, 134 Ariz. 254, 256, 655 P.2d 794, 796 (App. 1982), the Court held the refusal to instruct the jury on punitive damages when intoxicated driving was a proximate cause of the accident was reversible error, stating “if there is evidence that defendant was driving while intoxicated, and that his intoxicated driving was a proximate cause of an accident and resulting injury, the jury must decide whether the negligence was gross or wanton.”

In Haralson v. Fisher Surveying, Inc., 201 Ariz. 1, 31 P.3d 114 (2001), the Supreme Court specifically noted Arizona’s “public policy of deterring drunk driving” is precisely the type of conduct that warrants an award of punitive damages–even when the drunk dies in the collision. Chief Justice Jones stated, “[w]hen a person … engages in behavior so egregious as to drive a motor vehicle in a drugged or drunken state, resulting in the death or injury of innocent people, he or she must recognize that the decision to drive in that condition may result in placing everything on the line, even if solely as a reminder to others so tempted.” Id. at p. 4 and 7

In Ball v. Prentice, Supra, the Arizona Supreme Court held that driving through a stop sign directly in front of oncoming traffic with a blood alcohol level of .25 is conduct demonstrating a reckless indifference to the interests or safety of others and is sufficient to support a prima facie claim of punitive damages. 162 Ariz. 150, 153, 791 P.2d 628, 631 (1989). The court held:

Whether a party who consciously consumes enough alcohol to raise her blood alcohol level to more than two and one-half times the legal limit and then drives a motor vehicle on public roads, has demonstrated conduct which shows an evil mind intending to interfere with the rights of others lawfully using the highway or disregarding the substantial risk that conduct poses of significant harm to others, is a question of fact for the jury.

In Arizona, for a jury to award punitive damages, it is sufficient that a defendant should have known that his/her conduct was so egregious that it created a substantial risk of harm to others. In Olson v. Walker, Supra, the court explained the standard for punitive damages against intoxicated drivers, indicating that the defendant was not required to know that his conduct was so egregious that it created substantial risk of harm to others in order to be liable for punitive damages, but rather it was sufficient that he should have known the nature of his conduct.