Virginia Supreme Court Addresses Punitive Damages in DUI Case

In Cain v. Lee et al., 772 S.E.2d 894 (Va. 2015), the Virginia Supreme Court recently addressed the scope of punitive damages in a driving under the influence (“DUI”) case.

The plaintiffs in Lee filed suit after being injured in a motor vehicle accident caused by the defendant.  The defendant was arrested at the scene of the accident after failing a field sobriety test, but he refused to submit to a breath test.

The plaintiffs sought punitive damages on the basis of the defendant’s refusal to submit to a breath test.  The trial court instructed the jury that the defendant’s conduct must have been “egregious” for punitive damages to be awarded.

On appeal, the Virginia Supreme Court held that the instruction requiring the conduct to be “egregious” constituted error.  In reaching that decision, the Supreme Court relied on Va. Code § 8.01-44.5, which provides that punitive damages may be awarded against a defendant who unreasonably refuses to submit to a breath test when evidence demonstrates that: (1) the defendant was intoxicated at the time of the accident; (2) that the defendant knew or should have known “his ability to operate a motor vehicle was impaired;” and (3) “the defendant’s intoxication was a proximate cause of the injury to the plaintiff.”  In reversing the trial court, the Supreme Court emphasized that Va. Code § 8.01-44.5 does not include language requiring that a defendant’s conduct be “egregious” for punitive damages to be awarded.

The plaintiffs also appealed the trial court’s decision to exclude evidence that the defendant was convicted of a subsequent DUI after the motor vehicle accident at issue.  In upholding the exclusion of that evidence, the Supreme Court again relied on Va. Code § 8.01-44.5, concluding that the temporal language in the statute refers only to acts leading up to or directly related to the accident in question, but not post-accident evidence such as a subsequent DUI conviction.

Click here to read the opinion.