Will Maryland Start Imposing Punitive Damages for Drunk Driving?
Most people have some idea of the penalties for drunk driving. Depending on the state, those sanctions can include fines, jail time, the installation of an ignition interlock, and mandatory alcohol treatment. Punishments escalate when the drunk driving causes injury or death. In those cases, felony punishments can apply.
Recent events in Maryland have caused their General Assembly to act. Last December a high-ranking bishop in the Episcopal Church was accused of causing the death of a bicyclist in Baltimore as a result of drunk driving. The uproar has prompted a new bill, Senate Bill 605, which would allow civil punitive damages for drunk driving in certain cases. Essentially, the court could levy fines on a convicted drunk driver and pay the money to the victim.
For punitive damages to apply, the offender would have to be driving with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of twice the legal limit, or be driving with a suspended or revoked license.
Punitive damages are payments made over and above fines and standard compensation to victims. They are designed to punish an offender for conduct that either arises from an evil motive, or reckless indifference to others. The latter definition would apply to drunk driving.
The idea of punitive damages against drunk drivers has been debated. Some say that punitive damages are an undeserved reward. Others respond that they are needed as a deterrent.
Today most states have laws that allow punitive damages in at least some drunk driving cases. The reason Maryland is considering them now is the growing recognition that drunk driving is not just a crime, but a disregarding of the rights of others. To drive while impaired is to knowingly place others at risk. It took a high-profile court case to prompt action, but perhaps the added deterrent of punitive damages will keep some motorists from making the reckless decision to drink and drive.