Drugged Driving: Can You Sue for Punitive Damages?

Monday, January 22, 2018

Drugged Driving: Can You Sue for Punitive Damages?

Written by Malman Law, reviewed by Steve J. Malman.

Misusing prescription medications and illegal substances can make operating a vehicle dangerous – and reckless.

Just like driving after consuming too much alcohol, drugged driving puts everyone at risk on the road. Either way, the person driving is “under the influence” of mind altering substances (i.e., intoxicated) and a danger on the roads.

If you are injured by a drugged driver, you may wonder what your options are for filing a lawsuit or collecting compensation. Also, you may wonder if your case qualifies for punitive damages.

To answer this, you must first understand the role drugged driving plays in an accident suit so that you can see whether a drugged driver or a third party would be found reckless enough to pay punitive damages.

What Makes Drugged Driving so Dangerous in Chicago?

Illegal substances and prescription medications can affect the brain based on their chemical composition. Not all substances create adverse effects on a person’s ability to drive, but some do.

For example, marijuana slows a person’s reaction time, which means that they may respond slowly in emergency situations on the roadway. A driver taking methamphetamine could become reckless, aggressive, and speed. Sedatives, including prescription medications, could cause a driver to fall asleep at the wheel.

It is hard to determine how a drug will affect a person’s driving, because one person could be more affected by a drug than another. When a person mixes their medication (illegal or prescribed) with other substances like alcohol, the results are even more unpredictable.

Because of the unpredictability, most states have enacted zero-tolerance policies for drugged driving.

In the state of Illinois, a person can be convicted of a DUI if they drive under the influence of drugs or a combination of drugs and alcohol whenever that drug or combination hinders their ability to drive safely. Also, any volume of drug present on the person’s breath, in their blood, or present in their urine is considered above the threshold and the driver can be convicted of a DUI. Therefore, Illinois has zero-tolerance for drugged driving.

Drugged Driving Is a Growing Problem in the United States

A 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 20.7 million people ages 16 or older have driven under the influence of alcohol, while 11.8 million have driven under the influence of drugs.

Marijuana is the most common drug used while driving, which is why many states have requirements for THC testing – to verify unsafe levels of THC in the driver’s blood.

Some studies have linked driving under the influence of marijuana to increased rates of deadly car accidents or catastrophic incidents.

In addition to marijuana, prescription medications are the second leading cause of motor vehicle accidents involving drugged drivers. Not all drivers are abusing these medications either. In fact, many motorists do not realize how their prescription drug affects their driving – until they harm someone.

Why Statistics Are Wrong

While there are sobering numbers out there already about how many drugged drivers cause accidents each year, these numbers are most likely inaccurate. There are not roadside tests for drugged drivers yet, including THC tests. Police do not test a driver for drugged driving unless they have an equally illegal blood alcohol level at the time of the traffic stop or arrest; therefore, a driver could be arrested for a DUI for alcohol, even though they were drugged too.

Many drivers who cause accidents have alcohol and drugs in their system; making it hard for law enforcement to decipher which actually caused the accident.

Can You Sue a Drugged Driver?

Yes, you can file a lawsuit against a drugged driver.

Drugged driving is negligent; therefore, drivers can be held financially responsible for their reckless behavior.

While a driver might have a positive drug or alcohol test at the time of the accident, this is not always enough to win a lawsuit. Instead, you must prove three elements.

  1. Proving there was legitimate harm caused by the accident. In your claim, you state you were injured in the accident. However, the severity of your injury and evidence you have available will be two critical factors for your claim. Also, how fast you received medical treatment matters. The longer you wait, the harder it is to prove that your injury occurred because of the accident. Medical records serve as your proof that you were injured that day from the accident.
  2. Proving the driver was negligent. Drugged driving is undoubtedly negligent, but what proof do you have that the driver was under the influence of drugs at the time? The police’s evidence might not be admissible in their case, but your attorney may be able to use that evidence to prove the driver was under the influence. If the driver was convicted of drugged driving it will help prove your case too.
  3. Do you have a realistic idea of what your damages might cost? You can track your medical costs and lost wages, but what about your pain and suffering? Proving that your pain and suffering damages are legitimate are the hardest part of filing a claim. If you start the process of keeping a pain journal early enough, then you could prove how your injury has affected your day-to-day life. Regardless, save all documentation associated with your accident. The more evidence you have, the easier it is for your attorney to justify your settlement demands.

When Can You Sue for Punitive Damages?

Punitive damages are a special category of damages – and not all injury claims see punitive damages.

The court might order punitive damages if they determine that the defendant’s actions were extremely reckless or if they intended to cause harm deliberately.

Punitive damages have nothing to do with your personal losses. While you receive the punitive damages as part of your compensation, they are based on the behavior of the defendant rather than the losses you experience. They are designed to punish the defendant for their actions – hence the name. When punitive damages are issued, they serve as a warning to the public of what damages they might be forced to pay if they were to act in a similarly negligent manner.

Sometimes, the courts increase punitive damages when they feel the compensatory damage amounts are too low; ensuring the victim receives adequate compensation for their injuries.

While you might see some high-profile lawsuits in the news that required the defendant to pay millions in punitive damages, this is highly unlikely in an injury case. In fact, some research has found that punitive damages average under $50,000 for most injury cases.

Punitive Damage Caps Might Apply

Most states impose damage caps on punitive damages – which ensures that millions are not awarded unnecessarily.

The state of Illinois will not allow punitive damages to exceed three times the compensable damage amount.

How Punitive Damages Work in a Drugged Driving Case

Punitive damages might apply in a drugged driving, especially when the driver is using illegal substances at the time of the accident. If the driver has a history of drugged driving convictions, this might also increase the amount of punitive damages.

This is because the law seeks out this type of dangerous behavior, and looks to punish the guilty as well as prevent others from engaging in similar behavior.

To receive punitive damages, you must prove to the court that the driver’s overly negligent and outright reckless behavior has forced you to suffer extraordinary losses.

You must also qualify for compensatory damages to receive punitive damages. If there are no applicable compensatory damages, punitive damages do not apply.

To determine if punitive damages apply to a drugged driving accident, the courts will consider the following elements:

  • The plaintiff was awarded compensatory damages; therefore, they now qualify for potential punitive damages.
  • The defendant acted in a way that was more than just negligent. Instead, they acted with malicious intent or they were overly reckless. Driving while using an illegal substance is extremely reckless behavior, and it is also against the law. Therefore, they knew what they were doing was dangerous and could lead to harm.
  • The punitive damages must be relatively proportionate to the compensatory damages – and cannot exceed three times the amount of the compensatory damages. Also, the damages cannot exceed the constitutional rations of 10:1. Therefore, if you were awarded $20,000, your punitive damages could not exceed $100,000 because the courts would rule this unconstitutional.
  • The damages you claim must be a direct result of the behavior of the defendant.

How Do the Courts Calculate Punitive Damages?

Punitive damages are limited to a specific amount, but how they are determined varies. Sometimes the courts will take the total value of compensatory damages and then multiply it by two or three to come to the punitive damage amount.

As you can see, an award for punitive damages could be substantial, especially if compensatory damages are already hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The calculations used for punitive damages are done with caution, and even then, the courts scrutinize these amounts. While the jury could award a higher amount, the judge may lower punitive damages if he or she finds that they are unconstitutional. Also, the damage cap exists to prevent juries from over-awarding.

Injured by a Drugged Driver? You Need an Attorney

If you were involved in an accident with a drugged driver, realize that you will need an attorney to assist you with your case. Contact an attorney from Malman Law today to explore your options for compensation.

You can schedule a free consultation at any time by calling (888) 625-6265 or by contacting us online.

Steve Malman

Malman Law’s founder Attorney Steven Malman has over 30 years of experience handling personal injury, nursing home, medical malpractice, truck accidents, car accidents, premises liability, construction, and workers’ compensation cases in Chicago, IL.

Years of experience: +30 years
Justia Profile: Steve Malman
Illinois Registration Status: Active and authorized to practice law—Last Registered Year: 2024

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This page has been written, edited, and reviewed by a team of legal writers following our comprehensive editorial guidelines. This page was approved by President and Founder, Steven J. Malman who has more than 20 years of legal experience as a personal injury attorney.

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