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Court: Apportionment of Punitive Damages Not Required in Drunk Driving Case

An underinsured motorist (UIM) carrier has been deemed responsible to render policy limits for punitive damages an at-fault driver is unable to pay, even when those limits pertained to “property damage” losses plaintiff didn’t suffer. 

The case is indicative of why you need a highly experienced Florida car accident attorney to help handle drunk driving and/ or wrongful death accident claims. The reality is, you are likely to have valid claims against numerous insurance companies and making certain you have received payment on all policies rightly owed is imperative. Further, drunk driving accident claims are among the only type of car accident case in Florida wherein one might expect to obtain punitive damages, as outlined in F.S. 768.82. Such damages are allowable in cases where there is clear and convincing evidence a defendant is guilty of intentional misconduct or gross negligence. They are intended to punish the defendant rather than “make whole” the plaintiff (the latter being the goal of most personal injury claims).

In the case in question (arising in South Carolina, but with issues that may pertain to Florida car accident claimants), plaintiff and his wife were riding in a vehicle owned by the wife’s mother. Without warning, a drunk driver crossed the center line and struck their vehicle. Both were seriously injured, with plaintiff’s wife dying several days later due to catastrophic injuries. The at-fault driver paid its policy limit. Then the vehicle owner’s (decedent’s mother) insurer paid on its  UIM limits for ($25,000 to husband individually and $25,000 to him as representative of his wife’s estate). Husband then sought recovery from his own insurer, which provided split limits UIM policy. This allowed for property damage coverage up to $50,000 and bodily injury coverage of up to $100,000 each.

The insurer paid the maximum available for each person ($200,000 total). Plaintiff requested another $50,000 from that UIM policy available under the property damage provision, noting they fully expected to obtain a judgment for a punitive damage award against the at-fault driver. Their auto insurer, however, refused. Not only that, the insurer took husband to court seeking a judgment from the court that the insurer wasn’t liable to pay anything for punitive damages under the UIM’s property damage section because the source of UIM damages incurred by plaintiffs only for plaintiff’s purported bodily injury.

Both parties (stipulating that an award of punitive damages would exceed all available property damage coverage) sought to resolve the issue on summary judgment in their own favor. The district court finding this to be an issue of first impression certified a question to the state supreme court in South Carolina. The question was whether an auto insured with a split policy expecting punitive damages must have those apportioned pro rata between what they sustained for bodily injury versus property damage? The answer: No. The ultimate effect: Insureds owed punitive damages could expect it to be paid from either the bodily injury or property damage portions of that policy, even if it was split.

The court noted (admittedly non-binding) precedent in a 1971 district court ruling addressing similar issues, wherein a court disagreed with an insurer arguing any punitive damages should be awarded pro rata according to actual property damages. The court in that case ruled the statutory definition of “damages” included both actual and punitive damages. Further in this matter, the state supreme court held that state law requires UIM carriers to offer coverage up to the limits of the insured coverage to provide coverage in the event “damages” sustained are in excess of the liability limits carried by an at-fault insured or UIM.

Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights. Now serving Orlando, West Palm Beach, Port St. Lucie and Fort Lauderdale.

Additional Resources:

Government Employees Insurance Company v. Poole, July 5, 2018, South Carolina Supreme Court

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Ex-Royal Caribbean Worker Wins $20.3M Verdict in Florida Injury Lawsuit, June 20, 2018, West Palm Beach Crash Attorney Blog

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