While some people only think about police fines associated with driving under the influence, it’s equally important to consider the massive civil damages that will result from any accident. For instance, if an individual was driving drunk and injured another person, that person could expect both criminal penalties from the police and civil penalties from the injured parties. These civil penalties will include compensatory fees to cover any damages you may have caused, along with any punitive damages a jury may find appropriate as an additional penalty.
In the case of Thomas v Heard, the Supreme Court of Alabama affirmed a jury verdict that awarded the Plaintiffs $1,800,000 in compensatory damages, and an additional $2,000,000 in punitive damages, against the Defendant who caused a car accident while driving under the influence. The Defendant appealed the punitive damages as excessive. However, the Supreme Court of Alabama re-affirmed the jury’s decision as justified.
Courts look to three factors to determine if a punitive fine is excessive. The first factor is the difference between the compensatory and punitive damages. The second factor is how reprehensible was the conduct. This is the most important factor a Court will consider. The third factor is the defendant’s financial position.
In this case, the Supreme Court held that the compensatory and punitive damages were reasonably similar. Second, the Court held that the jury properly found that the Defendant’s action of driving under the influence was extremely reprehensible. Third, the Court looked at the Defendant’s financial position. The only evidence produced by the Defendant was an unsigned statement about his inability to pay the fines. At trial, the jury did not consider his unsigned statement because he was not a credible witness. There was no other evidence to determine the Defendant’s financial position. As a result, the Court held that the Defendant was unable to prove his inability to pay, and thus the fine was not excessive.
There are two lessons to be learned here. First, driving drunk carries with it the risk of massive civil fines, on top of any police fines you may have to pay. Second, when confronting civil penalties in front of a jury, it’s important to produce evidence that will withstand scrutiny in a courtroom. In this case, the Defendant may have been able to prove he was financial incapable to pay such fines had he produced proper evidence.