It is not uncommon for the evening news to feature a devastating story about someone seriously injured, or even killed, by a drunk driver. Furthermore, it should come as no surprise that Wisconsin has one of the highest rates of drinking and driving in the country.
The “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” campaign, which ran through January 1, 2019 was an effort undertaken by law enforcement agencies across the state to limit the number of impaired drivers on Wisconsin roadways. Authorities are optimistic that Wisconsin drivers are finally beginning to hear the messages about the dangers of impaired driving as traffic related fatalities overall actually declined in 2018 during the campaign.
In 2017, the total number of traffic related fatalities in Wisconsin was 594. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s preliminary report in January of 2019 reported 565 deaths through December 30, 2018, which would be the first yearly decline since 2014 of traffic related deaths. David Pabst, who is the Director of Transportation Safety, noted that the overall traffic fatalities in Wisconsin were down about 4% in 2018. The hope is that this trend continues in 2019 and beyond.
Around 12:39 a.m. on Sunday, March 10, 2019, a 36-year-old woman from Waterford, Wisconsin was critically injured in a drunk driving crash. The crash occurred on WIS-20 in Racine when the drunk driver, a 36-year old East Troy man, crossed the center line and struck a vehicle traveling in the opposite direction. The driver of the other vehicle was not injured. Both the drunk driver and passenger were non-responsive at the time 911 was called. The drunk driver was transported to an area hospital and treated for minor injuries. He was then transported to Racine County Jail to await charges to be filed against him for his third OWI offense.
The female passenger in the drunk driver’s vehicle was also transported to an area hospital and is being treated for life threatening injuries. Along with an OWI (3rd), the driver of the vehicle was also arrested for felony causing injury by intoxicated use of a motor vehicle due to the extent of the woman’s injuries.
This accident is just another example of the devastating effects caused by drunk driving. The driver’s bad decision will now potentially have horrific lifelong effects on his passenger. What makes tragic situations such as this even worse is learning that the offender has been convicted in the past of the same offense, often on more than one occasion. The sad reality is that many times, even multiple convictions is not enough to stop the abhorrent behavior.
Like any other motor vehicle crash in which the injured victim has a right to be compensated for the damages caused by the at-fault driver, drunk driving crashes work in much the same way. The drunk driver who caused the crash is responsible for compensating the injured victim for his or her medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering and for any future care that may be needed if the injury is permanent.
Since drunk driving is a much more egregious type of negligence, another type of damages may be available for the victim in certain circumstances. These types of damages are called punitive damages. The purpose of punitive damages is to have a deterrent effect; not only will they work to punish the wrongdoer, but punitive damages should also deter the wrongdoer – and others – from engaging in the same type of behavior in the future.
Wisconsin Statute Section 895.043 governs the law as it relates to punitive damages in this context. According to Wis. Stat. § 895.043(3), a plaintiff is entitled to punitive damages if he or she can show that “the defendant acted maliciously toward the plaintiff or in an intentional disregard of the rights of the plaintiff.” In order to prove that the defendant (i.e drunk driver) acted with an intentional disregard of the plaintiff’s rights, three criteria must be met:
(1) the act must have been deliberate;
(2) the act must actually disregard the injured party’s rights; and
(3) the act is sufficiently aggravated to warrant an award of punitive damages.
With regard to element number one, typically no one ever forces someone to drink and drive. It is typically obvious that someone who makes the decision to drink and drive did so deliberately. Similarly, element number two is usually not too difficult to show as a drunk driver on the roadway disregards the rights of all other users of the roadway, at large, by making it inherently unsafe. The third element – the aggravating factors – is generally where there is most room for argument. Aggravating factors include details that make the act of drunk driving even more egregious. For example, prior convictions, a high blood alcohol concentration or having children in the vehicle at the time of the accident may all constitute factors sufficient to warrant an award of punitive damages.
It is important to note that, generally, Wisconsin law imposes a cap on punitive damages to no more than twice the amount of underlying compensatory damages or $200,000, whichever is greater. According to Wis. Stat. § 895.043(6), however, this cap does not apply to an injured person seeking punitive damages from a defendant whose actions giving rise to the injury occurred while operating a motor vehicle “under the influence of an intoxicant to a degree that rendered the defendant incapable of safe operation of the vehicle.”
If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident caused by a drunk driver, the Groth Law Firm may be able to help. The team at Groth Law Firm has experience in handling cases against drunk drivers and will fight to get you the compensation you deserve. The attorneys at Groth Law Firm will ensure that your rights are protected and your recovery is maximized. They can also evaluate whether or not you may be able to pursue a claim for punitive damages against the defendant driver. Call the attoneys of Groth Law Firm for a free consultation at (414) 375-2030.
Woman critically injured, man arrested for 3rd OWI after crash in Racine County