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Drunk-driving accidents and civil liability

In our last post, we spoke briefly about the concept of using past criminal convictions as evidence in personal injury or wrongful death claims. As we noted, some incidents giving rise to personal injuries or fatality can become the subject of both criminal and civil liability, and a criminal conviction can potentially be used in a later civil proceeding.

A good example of this type of thing would be drunk-driving accidents. As readers know, driving under the influence can result in serious injuries and death. In pursuing criminal charges, prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the individual was operating his or her vehicle under the influence of alcohol. In drunk-driving cases involving serious injuries or fatality, there will be other appropriate criminal charges connected to those injuries or fatalities, and convictions on these charges can potentially be used in a later civil case as evidence.

Another aspect of this discussion is that, in personal injury or wrongful death cases involving drunk-driving, the plaintiff may be able to obtain punitive damages, depending on the circumstances. Punitive damages, under state law, are only available when the plaintiff is able to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant acted with actual malice or "wanton and willful disregard." Punitive damages cannot be obtained by presenting evidence of mere negligence or gross negligence.

In personal injury or wrongful death cases which are preceded by a drunk-driving conviction, it may be possible to present the defendant's conviction as evidence in support of punitive damages. Readers are advised, of course, to always work with an experienced attorney for accurate and up-to-date legal advice when pursuing personal injury and wrongful death litigation.

Source: New Jersey Legislature, "2A:15-5.12.  Award of punitive damages; determination ," Accessed Dec. 22, 2014. 

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