PUNITIVE DAMAGES FOR INTOXICATION: CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE IS ENOUGH

Florida personal injury law can be complicated and cumbersome to navigate. Plaintiffs attorneys not only have to prove causation (liability factors) but must also build a case that establishes damages. Often times some of the greatest damages can arise from a defendant’s use of alcohol or illegal drugs.

In these cases, voluntary intoxication can be presented to a jury and a plaintiff can seek punitive damages as a result of the defendant’s negligent act. Florida Statute 768.736 governing punitive damages provides that the punitive caps are lifted and do not apply to any defendant who, “at the time of the act or omission for which punitive damages are sought, was under the influence of any alcoholic beverage or drug to the extent his normal faculties were impaired, or who had a blood or breath alcohol level of .08 percent or higher.”

However, the plaintiff’s ability to present said evidence is not always easy, especially when a defendant either attempts to conceal or dispose of the evidence which could establish the defendant was under the influence to the extent his normal faculties were impaired. In these cases, it is likely that a blood or breath test was not administered and thus there is no direct testing link to establish the defendant’s impairment.

Thankfully, Florida case law has addressed situations where direct evidence is not available and has established that a body of circumstantial evidence is sufficient for jury resolution on whether a defendant was intoxicated. See Matalon v. Lee, 28 FLW D 1385 (Fla. 4th DCA 2003). In the Matalon case, the defendant moved for a directed verdict on the count of punitive damages, alleging there was insufficient evidence that the defendant had been intoxicated at the time of the accident. In denying the defendant’s motion, the trial court allowed the punitive count to be brought before the jury.

On appeal, the 4th DCA ruled that a jury may award punitive damages where voluntary intoxication is involved in an automobile accident. The court went on to hold that “although there was no direct proof of intoxication on Matalon’s behalf there was a wealth of circumstantial evidence of intoxication.” As a result, the 4th DCA concluded that a body of circumstantial evidence is sufficient for jury resolution as to whether a defendant was intoxicated.

If you or a loved one have been impacted by the negligence of an impaired driver we welcome you to call Givens Givens Sparks for a free case evaluation. Beginning the investigation and building the body of evidence early may be critical to your case success.

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