DUI and Leaving the Scene in Biloxi, MS Accident: Factors Affecting Punitive Damages
The sentencing phase of a DUI trial brought the case to an end in the eyes of prosecuting attorneys, but it serves no solace to the parents of a 22-year-old woman killed by the defendant. The Sun Herald provided a summary of the proceedings in a March 21, 2018 article, mentioning that the defendant was apologetic his role about the February 2016 incident. He had been partying with friends at a Mardi Gras celebration and, though he drank a considerable amount of alcohol, he still decided to drive. The victim was walking along the side of the street when the defendant rounded nearby curve in the road. His vehicle struck and killed her, but he kept driving. He was convicted on charges of DUI and leaving the scene, and sentenced to 20 years.
There is a common presumption that a victim or family members would be entitled to punitive damages under such egregious circumstances, in addition to compensation for losses. However, the issue of punitive damages in a Mississippi auto accident case is not so clear cut.
Getting to the Issue of Punitive Damages in an Auto Accident Case
Mississippi law requires a strict process before punitive damages is even a question. The jury in the case must first decide whether to award damages to compensate the victim for his or her losses, as well as what amount would be proper to make the person whole. Once the jury reaches a conclusion on the issue of compensatory damages, this triggers a separate proceeding on punitive damages.
The hearing is evidentiary in nature and the sole purpose is to determine whether punitive damages should go to the same jury for consideration. An evidentiary hearing may include presentation of information and witness testimony, but the issue not related to the underlying action or compensatory damages already awarded: The sole point is whether punitive damages are appropriate and in what amount.
Considerations in Awarding Punitive Damages
The claimant must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant acted with actual malice, or gross negligence that establishes willful, wanton, or reckless disregard for others. If the claimant prevails on this question, the jury will then consider the amount according to Mississippi’s statute on punitive damages. The factors include:
- The defendant’s financial condition;
- The egregiousness of the misconduct;
- Whether the defendant was aware of the degree of harm;
- Attempts to conceal wrongdoing; and,
- Other items as designed by law.
Once the jury comes back with a punitive damages amount, the judge will consider whether the award is reasonable. Since the intent of punitive damages is to punish the wrongdoer, any award that does not bear a relationship to this purpose would not be appropriate.
Note that there is a statutory cap on punitive damages that relates to the defendant’s net worth; when that number is $50,000,000 or less, the award may be 2 percent of the net worth. The statutory cap can be considerable when the defendant is a large corporation or manufacturer worth $1 billion or more.
Schedule a Consultation with an Experienced Biloxi, MS Auto Accident Attorney
Punitive damages are complex under Mississippi law, as there are several stages to the court proceedings. The attorneys at the Law Offices of Judy Guice in Biloxi, MS can tell you more about the potential for punitive damages and other legal options in your case, so please contact us to schedule a consultation.