Written by Teresa Johnson
Ellen DeGeneres admitted on Jimmy Kimmel Live that when her wife, Portia de Rossi, needed to go to the hospital, Ellen drove her – after consuming three “weed drinks” and some melatonin sleep pills. Luckily, Ellen and Portia were able to arrive at the hospital safely, where Portia underwent emergency surgery. Upon reflection, Ellen stated that driving after consuming these beverages was “probably not safe.”
While Ellen can look back on the day and relay an entertaining story on a late-night show, other people are not so lucky. Driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol is against the law in California. It can have serious ramifications not only for the impaired driver but other persons on the roadway. (Cal. Veh. Code section 23152.) Impaired drivers may not react as quickly to traffic conditions or may disregard traffic signals or rules of the road. When an impaired driver gets behind the wheel, it can lead to severe injuries to other people who may have little to no time to react before a collision occurs. Victims of a collision caused by an impaired driver may be able to seek recovery against the impaired driver in a civil lawsuit. In addition to the typically recoverable medical bills, lost earnings, and pain and suffering damages, parties injured by an impaired driver might also be able to seek punitive damages.
In civil cases, punitive damages are only available where it can be established that the at-fault party acted with malice, oppression, or fraud. (Cal. Civ. Code section 3294.) As the name suggests, punitive damages are intended to serve as a “punishment” for the at-fault party. Unlike compensatory damages (i.e., medical bills, lost earnings, pain, and suffering damages), which are intended to compensate a personal injury victim, punitive damages are focused on deterring future wrongful conduct by the defendant.
In the context of cases involving a DUI, punitive damages may be available if it can be established that the impaired driver acted with malice or a conscious disregard for the safety of others. The seminal case Taylor v. Superior Court (1979) 24 Cal.3d 890 has provided the California courts with some guidance on this issue, in holding that the act of driving while under the influence, having drunk or ingested substances to the point of intoxication while knowing they must drive after the fact, even without the presence of any aggravating factors such as prior arrests or convictions, may be sufficient to warrant a claim for punitive damages. (Taylor at 896-897.)
As the circumstances that can allow for the imposition of punitive damages are case-specific, meaning that simply alleging that a driver was under the influence likely would be insufficient, it is important to contact an attorney who understands how to navigate these claims.
Thankfully, Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi are safe. However, if someone has been injured in a motor vehicle collision due to another individual’s impaired ability to react due to the use of cannabis or cannabis-related products, immediately connect with an attorney and understand your rights.
Kramer Trial Lawyers, APC is an award-winning law firm representing plaintiff rights.