Will insurance pay punitive damages for a drunk driver?

It seems obvious that, if a drunk driver is insured, their insurance company must pay any verdict that results from the driver/insured’s negligence. I’ve never heard it questioned before, but the Fifth Circuit issued an opinion last week confirming that insurance must pay punitive damages after a drunk driving accident.

The Fifth Circuit rejected the insurance company’s argument that drunk driving collisions are not accidents and therefore injuries resulting from a drunk driving accident are not covered by the policy and they do not have to pay…

Is a drunk driving accident an accident? Does insurance pay for punitive damages in a verdict against a drunk driver? What is the rule in SC?

Does Insurance Pay Punitive Damages for a Drunk Driver?

The Cincinnati Insurance Company attempted to argue that they were not required to pay a punitive damages award against their insured because… a drunk driving accident is not an accident.

As a result, the Fifth Circuit issued a written opinion finding that, yes, a drunk driving accident is an accident that is covered by an automobile insurance policy.

Is a Drunk Driving Accident an Accident? 

In Frederking v. Cincinnati Insurance Company, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a drunk driving accident is, in fact, an accident, and, therefore, the insurance company is on the hook for the punitive damages award.

Only an insurance company could come up with the policy interpretation advanced here. Cincinnati Insurance Company theorizes that its automobile policies do not cover injuries caused by drunk driving collisions, because such collisions are not “accidents.” Its logic is this: intentional acts are not accidents, and drunk drivers make the intentional choice to drink and then drive.

No court has ever held that a drunk driving accident is not an accident, and, as the Court explains, every person who drives a car expects that a drunk driving accident is an accident that would be covered by their automobile policy…

This theory of interpretation conflicts with the plain meaning and common usage of the word “accident”—and defies the understanding and expectation of everyone who drives a car. Not surprisingly, no court has, to our knowledge, endorsed the policy interpretation advanced here…

Note that the insurance company paid the compensatory damages (medical expenses and other costs), but they just didn’t want to pay the punitive damages award… If they truly believed their argument that a drunk driving accident is not an accident covered by the policy, why would they have paid anything at all?

It Was a Long Shot, But Hey, Why Not?

Surely the insurance company’s attorneys knew that their client was obligated to pay the punitive damages award. Why make the argument?

If the Courts accepted Cincinnati’s argument, it would have removed many different situations from insurance coverage. Consider their logic:

  • Intentional acts are not accidents.
  • Drunk drivers make the intentional choice to drink and then drive.
  • Therefore, drunk driving accidents are not accidents.

If approved by the courts, this line of reasoning would result in exclusion of coverage for any accident caused by any intentional act on the part of the insured – including texting, eating, putting on makeup, etc:

Moreover, under Cincinnati’s theory of interpretation, it is not just drunk driving collisions that would be excluded from coverage. As counsel acknowledged during oral argument, a collision caused by texting while driving would also not be an accident. A collision caused by eating while driving would not be an accident. And a collision caused by doing makeup while driving would not be an accident. In each of these scenarios, after all, a driver has made an intentional decision that contributes to an accident.

When people purchase an insurance policy, they expect their insurance to cover damages caused by drunk driving, texting, or any of hundreds of other common causes of automobile accidents. It’s what they are paying for

Do You Get Punitive Damages for a Drunk Driving Accident in SC? 

You can get punitive damages after a DUI accident in SC. You are entitled to punitive damages when:

  • You prove by clear and convincing evidence that the other driver’s actions were willful, wanton, or reckless;
  • The other driver has been convicted of a DUI offense related to your accident; or
  • When you prove that the other driver was intoxicated, regardless of whether they have been convicted.

Will Insurance Pay Punitive Damages for a Drunk Driver in SC? 

The other driver’s insurance company will pay a punitive damages verdict after trial, up to the other driver’s policy limits.

What happens if the insurance company refuses to settle the case within policy limits and then the defendant is hit with a punitive damages award?

At that point, the defendant might have an insurance bad faith lawsuit against their insurance company – a bad faith claim that may include additional punitive damages, this time against the insurance company, and that can be assigned to you in exchange for not executing the judgment against the defendant…

SC DUI Accident Lawyers in Myrtle Beach

If you’ve been injured in a DUI accident with a drunk driver, the lawyers at Coastal Law can help you to investigate, gather the evidence that you need, negotiate your claim, and take your case to trial when they do not pay.

Schedule a free consultation to discuss the facts of your case by calling (843) 488-5000 or filling out our online form.

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Contact Coastal Law to discuss your situation.

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