A bill that passed the Maryland Senate this February would open the door for the families of drunk-driving victims to sue repeat offenders for punitive damages. This would potentially put repeat drunk drivers who have caused a fatality on the hook for substantial sums in addition to the compensatory damages for funeral cost and vehicular damage that Maryland law already allows survivors to recoup.
Bill MD-SB302 now goes to the Maryland House of Delegates before it can become law. Though support in the Maryland Senate was overwhelming in a 43-1 vote, the House of Delegates may not pass it so easily. Similar legislation died in committee when it was introduced last year.
Some important details of the bill to remember should it pass: plaintiffs would be allowed to sue for punitive damages if a person who was previously convicted of driving under the influence kills a person in a subsequent crash while “extremely intoxicated.” What counts as “extremely intoxicated”? The Senate legislation defines this as a blood-alcohol level of 0.15 percent, which is almost twice the legal limit of .08 for driving under the influence.
The bill’s sponsor, Senator Jamie Raskin, argues that the bill corrects a failure in the current law to account for the enormity of the loss victims’ families experience when a loved one is killed by a drunk driver in a crash that could have been prevented. Raskin noted that most auto insurance policies don’t cover punitive damages, making the argument that this additional monetary cost could create additional deterrent fro keep offenders from repeating their crimes, as they would be forced to pay plaintiffs out of pocket in the event of a fatality. The bill also anticipates that offenders may be tempted to refuse a breath test to avoid conviction that could lead to additional punitive damages, adding that any breath test refusal should lead to automatic presumption of an alcohol level at 0.15 percent for the purposes of civil liability, effectively nullifying refusal as an evasion strategy.
Though the bill would certainly raise the stakes for driving under the influence, detractors question the bill’s deterrent effect. When a similar bill was defeated last year, it was criticized for presuming too much monetary rationalization on the part of repeat drunk driving offenders, who are likely more deterred by the threat of a jail sentence than by piling on the additional liability of punitive damages. Vice chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Kathleen Dumais, stated: “No drunk driver is going to think, ‘Gee, I shouldn’t drive drunk because I might get compensatory and punitive.’”
Fatalities caused by drunk driving are always a tragedy, and the topic is an emotional one for many. It will certainly be interesting to see how the Maryland House of Delegates will respond to the bill this year.