This is one case where I’ll take special care to tell you we can’t expect this every time. In a word, this result was spectacular.

We got a punitive damage award of $194,890 in a property damage arbitration hearing against a drunk driver who totaled my client’s SUV in Spartanburg. That’s 10 times the value of the car.

Our victory couldn’t have been won for a nicer guy, or for a better reason. From a legal standpoint, we achieved this award because I used the philosophy behind punitive damages to make sure the arbitrator gave them full application to this case.

How and why Brian found me. Brian came to me unsure of his legal rights. He truly didn’t know if he had any, and just wanted to get some questions answered. Like many people, Brian reached out to a friend to get a  recommendation for a lawyer. I’d helped the friend before, so the friend sent him to me.

Brian’s biggest question. Right after the crash, Brian got the disturbing news that it looked like he had no way to get his car repaired. The at-fault driver’s insurance company called to tell him that his policy had lapsed, and they wouldn’t be paying anything.

Immediate relief. I told Brian he still had rights, since South Carolina law requires everyone to carry a type of coverage on their own policy called uninsured motorist coverage. It protects you from drivers like this, who have no liability insurance. And Brian needed coverage. While he didn’t get hurt, his Chevy Tahoe was not drivable. I reassured Brian that he could probably handle getting his car repaired or replaced on his own without having to pay me for it. Eventually, his own insurance company totaled the vehicle, giving him a check for $19,489.00 to replace it.

Because this case involved a drunk driver, I felt we might be able to help him recover punitive damages for the criminal conduct causing the crash. He hired me, and I set off to build a case. Here’s the evidence I developed.

Evidence of this crash. I got the crash report, which revealed that on January 9, 2017, around 6:42 p.m., Brian got hit by the drunk defendant. It happened while Brian was on the way to pick up a birthday cake for his wife’s birthday supper celebration at a restaurant in Spartanburg.

The defendant turned left directly into the driver’s side of Brian’s 2008 Tahoe. I got pictures of the Tahoe to justify why the insurance company deemed it a total loss.

But that wasn’t all. I also got a copy of the arresting trooper’s investigative file. It was a virtual goldmine for us, revealing:

  • The at-fault driver’s breath test was an eye popping .36—over 4 times the legal limit. And it wasn’t even 9 o’clock yet. The at-fault driver reeked so badly of alcohol, the trooper rolled his windows down to take him to jail. It was January.
  • After the breath test, the trooper was so worried about the high alcohol content he took the at-fault driver to the hospital for examination.

And as if that wasn’t enough…

Smoking gun gives more evidence for punitive damages. We researched the at-fault driver on the internet and discovered he’d been arrested for a DUI less than 4 months before this one, causing another wreck.

I got that investigative file also, which revealed:

  • Concerned motorists called police from the road reporting his inability to stay in a lane and almost hitting another vehicle head on.
  • He was so drunk, the officer stopped one field sobriety test out of safety concerns for the at-fault driver.  On another test, he almost fell flat on his face.
  • The at-fault driver bluntly told the officer, “We both know I’m drunk, I’ve only got a mile to go.”

We used this evidence to show the at-fault driver was a heartless, remorseless drunk driver who cared for no one other than himself. He was a real threat on the roads, and the criminal justice system hadn’t been able to stop him. So we needed the civil justice system to do all it could to send a message that our society won’t tolerate drunk drivers causing wrecks.

Arbitration and hearing. For reasons I will never understand, Brian’s insurance company refused to negotiate punitive damages. This shocks most policyholders in uninsured and underinsured cases, when they find their own insurance company turns on them to defend the at-fault driver.

At the hearing, I urged the arbitrator for a heavy-handed punitive damages award based on the above evidence and some other details. I argued that the case demanded the big assessment because the at-fault driver just won’t learn drunk driving is wrong. Plus, he is the worst kind of offender—his recklessness escalated over time. While his first crash was low impact, this one caused extreme damage to a sturdy, well-built American SUV.

Clearly, the arbitrator agreed.

Lessons learned. For Brian, he learned the important lesson that it’s a good idea to find out what rights you have when you just don’t know. His courage in asking for help left him far better off in this case than he ever dreamed.


Rob Usry
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Rob is a Spartanburg personal injury lawyer. Rob also practices as a workers' compensation attorney.