The Power of Punitive Damages – Drunk Driving in Virginia

Did you know that drunk drivers can be liable for punitive damages?  They can.


Let me take a step back; typically, an injured person can only claim compensatory damages from the person who injured them.  Compensatory damages are meant to make the injured party whole . . . to compensate the injured party.  Those damages are comprised of medical bills, pain and suffering, lost wages, lost future earnings, etc.

On the other hand, exemplary damages are meant to punish.  Exemplary damages are often called punitive damages.  Punitive damages are generally only awarded if a defendant’s conduct was reckless or willful and wanton, showing a conscious disregard for the rights of others.

The Virginia Legislature has enacted Virginia Code § 8.01-44.5.  (Exemplary damages for persons injured by intoxicated drivers).  The code states in the pertinent part:

A defendant’s conduct shall be deemed sufficiently willful or wanton as to show a conscious disregard for the rights of others when the evidence proves that (i) when the incident causing the injury or death occurred, the defendant had a blood alcohol concentration or 0.15 percent or more . . .; (ii) at the time the defendant began drinking alcohol. Or during the time he was drinking alcohol, he know or should have known that his ability to operate a motor vehicle . . . would be impaired . . . and; (iii) the defendant’s intoxication was a proximate cause of the injury to or death of the plaintiff.

So, in your average car accident case, punitive damages cannot be awarded because the harm is rarely intentional.  However, if you are hit by a drunk driver, you can ask the jury to award punitive damages pursuant to Virginia Code § 8.01-44.5.

This is import for one main reason: money.


A Virginia jury is allowed to award a Plaintiff up to $300,000 in punitive damages.  In a modest case, this represents a sizable recovery. (Some judges will reduce this award if it is greatly out of proportion to the compensatory damages awarded).  For example, a jury in Fairfax awarded a plaintiff both compensatory and punitive damages.  In that case, the plaintiff was the driver of a car hit by a drunk driver.  The plaintiff was not severely hurt. (A few thousand dollars in compensatory damages). The jury awarded the plaintiff $5,600 in compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages. (The court later reduced the punitive award to $50,000). This example demonstrates the power of recovering punitive damages against a drunk driver.

In many circumstances, a plaintiff’s damages will be modest.  In a drunk driving accident, don’t settle for a modest recovery.


At Cuthbert Law Offices, we specialize in car accidents and personal injuries and social security disability.  Give us a call. (804) 485-2555. We are here to help—it’s what we’ve been doing for over 30 years.