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Senate passes bill to allow punitive damages against drunk drivers

ANNAPOLIS – The Senate on Friday passed legislation enabling drunk drivers to be held liable for punitive damages if they have a conviction for drunk driving within the past 10 years and caused the victim’s death or other injury by driving a motor vehicle while having a blood alcohol concentration of at least 0.15.

With the Senate’s 43-1 vote, attention shifts to the House of Delegates, where similar legislation is pending before the House Judiciary committee.

As introduced, Senate Bill 302 would have set the limits for potential punitive damages at five years and .08 but was changed by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee before reaching the Senate floor.

The availability of punitive damages is a rarity in Maryland law, as they can generally be awarded only when the defendant acted with evil motive, intent to injure or ill will.

Under SB 302, punitive damages would have to be justified by “clear and convincing evidence” and would be available only in cases where the victim has been awarded compensatory damages for injuries. The victims would also have to include a claim for punitive damages in their complaint, and not first raise the claim during trial.

Judges would be permitted to review a jury’s award for punitive damages, which must be reduced if it is “disproportionate” to the award of compensatory damages or “disproportionate to the [driver’s] conduct, taking into account the gravity and continuing nature of the conduct.”

Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, the bill’s chief sponsor, defended the expansion of punitive damages to drunk driving by citing Officer Noah Leotta, 24, a Montgomery County policeman who was struck and killed in December by a suspected drunk driver during a traffic stop involving another motorist. Leotta was on a police task force that enforced laws against drunk driving.

“Punitive damages are not just about the drunk driver,” said Raskin, D-Montgomery, adding they send “a statement by Maryland that we do not accept this kind of conduct, that it is intentional conduct. We have to send a very tough message to people: This [drunk driving] is simply taboo.”

Sen. Edward R. Reilly, the only senator to vote against the measure, said punishment is generally the province of criminal law, not civil litigation.

“Drunk driving is a scourge on our community,” said Reilly, R-Anne Arundel. “[But] this is a fundamental change in the civil law.”

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, Charles and Prince George’s; and Sens. Cheryl C. Kagan, D-Montgomery; and Guy J. Guzzone, D-Howard, were not present for the vote.