It is well known that driving under the influence of alcohol impairs perception, judgment, motor skills and memory, all of which are critical skills needed for safe driving. Too many innocent victims are killed on our highways by drunk drivers, and society has acknowledged that the need to deter this dangerous behavior is great. Legal sanctions, including punitive damages, are central to the deterrence of impaired driving. Even though the enormity of this problem has been addressed by both the New Jersey State Legislature and our courts, New Jersey law still protects these dangerous drivers and, conversely, limits the rights of innocent victims who are injured by drunk drivers.

Historically, New Jersey courts have refrained from holding drunk drivers strictly responsible for the happening of a motor vehicle accident and the resulting damages, as the mere fact that the driver of an automobile was intoxicated is not in and of itself negligence. In Roether v. Pearson, 36 N.J. Super. 465 (1955), the plaintiff contended that since the defendant pleaded guilty to a criminal charge of drunken driving, he should have been held solely responsible for the happening of the collision. At trial, the jury returned a verdict of “no cause of action” in favor of the drunk driver, and the plaintiff filed a motion to set aside the verdict as against the weight of the evidence. The trial judge denied the motion, and the Appellate Division affirmed and recognized that the jury could conclude that the defendant’s intoxication was not a proximate cause of the accident, and therefore there was no civil responsibility.

Since New Jersey courts have declined a strict liability approach, a plaintiff is required to show that the defendant’s intoxication affected his ability to drive, and was a proximate cause of the motor vehicle accident. While this approach does make sense in light of the rationale expressed in the Roether case, its unfortunate result is that most competent defense attorneys will strategically decide to stipulate to liability in an attempt to keep evidence of intoxication away from the jury. In this situation, where liability is now admitted, the fact that the defendant was intoxicated does not become relevant to what injuries, if any, the plaintiff sustained in the subject motor vehicle accident. By hiding the defendant’s intoxication from the jury, the deterrence effect of holding drivers accountable for their bad decisions becomes limited.

Therefore, in order to introduce evidence of a defendant’s intoxication to a jury in a civil lawsuit, a plaintiff typically needs to seek punitive damages against the defendant. Punitive damages are not only intended to punish a wrongdoer, but also to serve to deter both the wrongdoer and others from similar intolerable behavior. It has been said that the purpose of punitive damages is to serve an expression of society’s disapproval of this outrageous conduct. See Fischer v. Johns-Manville Corp., 103 N.J. 643, 657 (1986).

Punitive damages are typically seen in dram-shop and social-host liability claims, and since evidence of intoxication is a necessary proof in these cases, juries are able to hear testimony on this subject. But what if the drunk driver became intoxicated at his own home, and then caused a rear-end collision? In this type of situation, where the only defendant is the drunk driver, a claim for punitive damages is frequently the only way a jury will be told the truth about the happening of the accident. The defense will almost always automatically admit liability in such a case, and therefore it is absolutely necessary to have a punitive-damage claim in order to explore the issue of intoxication before a jury.

Generally, a defendant’s conduct must be particularly egregious to support an award of punitive damages. To warrant a punitive-damage award, the defendant’s conduct must have been wantonly reckless or malicious. There must be an intentional wrongdoing in the sense of an “evil minded act” or an act accompanied by a wanton and willful disregard of the rights of another. See Nappe v. Anschelewitz, Barr, Ansell, & Bonello, 97 N.J. 37, 49 (1984) (citing DiGiovanni v. Pessel, 55 N.J. 188, 191 (1970). Prior to 1986, there were no reported opinions in New Jersey as to whether punitive damages were available in an automobile accident where the defendant driver was intoxicated.

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